Trees may be patient, but people interested in forest land use, preservation, and private ownership are not.

Three bills related to the Maine woods are currently in play in the state legislature: 

• one that would increase oversight of Maine Public Lands forests, 

• another seeking to subsidize the forest biomass industry in the state, 

• and one attempting to prevent the federal government from turning any Maine land into a national monument.

Bill Would Increase Oversight of Timber Harvesting 

On Tuesday, the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry  (ACF) Committee unanimously approved a bill that would  increase oversight of timber harvesting on Maine Public Lands and uses of the timber revenue. The proposed bill was based on the public lands commission study report released in January. If passed by the Legislature, LD 1629 will

• allow experts from the greater forestry and forest science community to advocate for a sustainable timber harvest level from the public lands forests

• require state forestry administrators to provide more  detailed annual reporting on timber harvesting and tree growth in each of the three Maine Public Lands regions in the state, with particular focus on reporting about smaller forest units within the regions where more timber was cut during the year than was grown

• require the ACF committee to review and familiarize themselves with the law and policy that governs sustainable timber harvesting on Maine Public Lands

• establish an annual cash operating balance of $2.5 million so the agency can build logging roads, harvest timber, pay staff salaries and logging contractors, and pay for equipment without delay

• require an inventory of the public forests at an estimated cost of up to $100,000, in an attempt to more accurately determine what is growing in order to determine what can be cut

• require progress in establishing legal rights-of-way to Maine Public Lands units that do not have road access

• task forestry administrators with prioritizing new recreational projects on Maine Public Lands, including those offering access to the disabled, that would spur economic activity in rural areas; public hearings would be held before project approval

• emphasize improving wildlife habitat, buying adjacent land that offers ‘special habitat,’ improving directional signage so the public can find their public lands, and add signage that increases public education about the public forest

• establish a grant program (up to $300,000)  to use timber revenue to buy logging equipment for public high school  and public post-secondary logging training programs

• task forestry administrators with reporting back to the committee on the bid process for contractors that harvest timber and construct roads on Maine Public Lands

LD 1629 would also prolong the life of a Maine Public Lands study commission for at least two more meetings this year. 

One of the unfinished tasks before the study commission is to investigate and discuss how much timber to cut from Maine Public Lands, decisions which are supposed to equally weigh land values for wildlife, biodiversity, public recreation, and economic returns from timber. This “exemplary forestry” standard requires patience, but has the advantage of being able to create a more biologically diverse forest  than that which results from the practices typically followed by the commercial timber industry. 

The commission would also investigate whether or how the legislative committee should be involved in approving timber management plans.

The proposed bill is in response to increases in timber harvesting on Maine Public Lands over the past three years that were done without the knowledge of the legislature or the public. Forestry administrators argued that the public was informed, since the changes were available to anyone who read the annual report. 

The increased timber harvesting resulted in what the LePage administration defined as surplus revenue and what some foresters defined as aggressive timber harvesting more typical of industry, not a public agency with a multiple-use mandate. Attempts by the governor to remove that money from the dedicated  Maine Public Reserve Lands account to use it for a heating program failed to pass constitutional muster.

The governor opposes the proposed bill, in part because logging-industry jobs are declining and the need for logging education is not relevant, according to Avery Day, the governor’s counsel. The governor also opposes extending the public lands commission or giving more oversight authority to the legislative committee. 

Timber Harvests Planned on Remote Forest

Maine Forest Service Director Doug Denico, who also is the acting director of Maine Public Lands, said Tuesday that the state agency plans to harvest timber this summer from a pubic lot adjacent to Baxter State Park, near Katahdin Lake.

“I inherited this sliver up there,” said Denico, referring to the remote 2,500-acre public property known as the East Turner Mountain Public Lot. 

In February, the governor announced that the state was reclaiming a legal right-of-way across Elliotsville Plantation, the land bought by Roxanne Quimby, in order to forestall a federal takeover of Maine’s northern woods. Elliotsville Plantation Inc. would like to give the land to the federal government to be used to establish and maintain a national monument.

Denico said the state is having a bridge delivered from Georgia to install over Katahdin Brook on the Elliotsville Plantation property. Contractors will then extend the existing road farther into the remote Wassataquoik valley to reach the East Turner Mountain lot, which is up against the eastern boundary of Baxter State Park on one side and borders the Wassataquoik Stream for 2.5 miles. 

Rep. Craig Hickman, who co-chairs the ACF committee,  asked about the lot, including road building costs and the age of the forest.

Denico said the cost of road and bridge building across the state right-of-way on Elliotsville Plantation and up to the remote lot would be around $160,000. He said he plans to harvest a third of the timber on the lot this summer to generate “a half million to three quarters of a million dollars.”

Hickman said he understood there were some old trees on the lot.

Denico said there was “nothing unique” about the forest. “It’s not unusual for that area,” he said. “There are 1,400 acres in Baxter just like that.”

Baxter State Park is managed under a “Forever Wild” mandate, except in one special forest management unit. A 2014 management plan done by Maine Public Lands administrators identified 150-year-old sugar maples on the East Turner Mountain lot that measured two feet across. It also identified the lot as a unique forest type, as having little human disturbance and identified the primary use as remote recreation. Timber harvesting would be a secondary use.

Hickman asked if there was a prescription written for the lot. A prescription gives a precise account of what will be cut. Denico said one wasn’t needed to put in a road.

In related Maine Public Lands news, Denico said his staff had cut 145,000 cords last year, created 24 miles of hiking trails, and built 30 miles of roads. Denico said he was also investigating spraying for spruce budworm on some public forests and increased timber harvesting to discourage the budworm.

Bill Would Restrict Selling or Giving Private Land

On Wednesday, the State and Local Government Committee worked on a bill that, if passed by the Legislature, would stop the designation of national monuments in Maine. In essence, any landowner that tries to give or sell land to the federal government for use as a national monument would be blocked from doing so: the land would revert back to the owner. This would be accomplished by amending an existing state law by adding a so-called “reverter clause.”

The results of the work session were not available by press time. 

Public Subsidy Sought to Save Biomass Businesses

A bill is in the works that would give priority to electricity provided from stand-alone biomass plants in Maine. A public hearing should be announced by the end of the week. 

The draft bill includes: prioritizing electricity bid contracts based on the number of Maine jobs provided, the amount of taxes paid to municipalities, the amount of money spent on Maine goods and services, and the amount paid for land leases, buying biomass, or other in-state fuel purchases. 

The proposal would artifically lower bids by up to 50 percent. The so-called biomass bill was prompted in an effort to save timber-industry jobs. The result is that the price of electricity will likely go up for consumers while carbon-polluting electricity remains unchecked, according to opponents of the bill.

Individual wood biomass plants that use wood chips, sawdust, and other woody material to make steam that generates electricity are the latest sector to be affected by changes in the global economy. 

The combination of reduced global petroleum prices (which is largely a result of increased natural gas extraction in the U.S.) and increased regional restrictions on carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, has led to a major slump in Maine’s biomass business that is ricochetting through the Maine logging and timber industry. Many lumber mills, for instance, sell their waste wood to biomass mills. Logging contractors sell chipped branches and debris.

Opponents argue the bill favors biomass plants with high carbon emissions over cleaner, more climate-friendly energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal.

The new pollution regulations were not a surprise. Maine biomass plants had a four-year warning that carbon emission regulations would get stricter. In 2012, Massachusetts passed tighter regulations on carbon emissions from biomass plants that went into effect in 2015. They gave Maine biomass plants an extra year to meet the emissions standards or lose their Renewable Energy Credits (REU) subsidy.