Maine’s Public Lands Pushes to Cut 40% More Timber on the Hush

by Christine Parrish

Last week, a handful of public servants in a quiet back room in Farmington faced a question it appeared they were trying to duck.

Were they planning to ramp up timber harvests on Maine’s publicly owned lands? If so, where? Why? By how much?

The meeting was supposed to be almost pro forma. It was the five-year meeting of advisors who care about the 36,000-acre Bigelow Preserve mountain range in western Maine and the area surrounding it known as the Flagstaff Region. No one seems to disagree that the Bigelow mountain range, with its varied forests, seven peaks, alpine ponds and astonishing views of the western mountains, is a plum of a place. It’s a favorite of hikers, skiers and hunters.

But for days there had been rumors that there was a plan under way to do more intensive timber harvesting on Maine’s Public Lands. There had been no public discussion, however, and it looked like this meeting would provide an opportunity.

Just before 1:30 in the afternoon on Thursday, August 15, the day of the meeting, an email went out to the advisory committee members squelching the idea. Jim Vogel, a planner for the Maine Division of Parks and Public Lands (DPPL), asked attendees to stick to the agenda.

But early in the meeting, someone tossed the agenda aside and asked the question. Was there a plan to cut more trees?

 

For decades, the half-million acres of Maine Public Reserve Lands have been the quiet darlings of the state conservation system.

The Mahoosuc Mountains, Cutler’s Bold Coast —29 public lands units in all, comprising a half-million acres, are free and open to the public. Best of all, they are self-supporting. In a state that is perpetually fighting over public dollars, that is no small thing. With rare exceptions, public lands don’t cost a thing.

The reason is timber.

Some public lands parcels are ecological reserves, but large segments are managed by teams of public lands foresters who work to get the forest to yield real money from timber harvests, while also providing high-quality habitat to everything from black ducks to moose, deer, bear, and migratory songbirds. Recreation is an equal priority. How much recreation management, how much wildlife, how much timber varies from one public lands unit to the next, but the general goal has been to create a diverse forest of many uses.

The quiet little darling of a system, operating largely under the radar for decades, worked.

 

Last spring a proposal to cut more trees from Maine’s Public Lands to fund a public heating program failed to gain legislative support, but it fanned a conversation about neglected dollars standing on the stump, waiting to be turned into boards and cords. That prompted the governor’s office to ask the DPPL: how much more wood can you cut?

“The question initiated from the administration asking for a collective response from the Maine Forest Service and Public Lands,” said Tom Morrison, the DPPL operations chief. The governor’s office wanted to know how much more wood could be harvested while still meeting forest industry standards for sustainable forestry, said Morrison.

Morrison said there was no discussion about where the money from timber sales would go. By current law, they are dedicated funds and must be returned to the DPPL.

The harvesting discussion became public on August 15.

 

At the Flagstaff meeting, Katherine Eickenberg, the chief planner for the DPPL, dismissed forest management of the Bigelow Preserve as not relevant to the discussion of the Flagstaff Unit. The focus of the discussion at hand was recreational trails and use, she said, not timber.

“Recreation moves at a different pace than wildlife and forest management,” she said. “They are on a much more predictable trajectory.”

Apparently not.

In fact, according to Public Lands staff, the plan is to cut a lot more trees.

Morrison said discussions between the governor’s office, the Maine Forest Service and DPPL resulted in a negotiated timber harvest number: 180,000 cords per year.

Within three years, DPPL plans to cut 27-percent more timber per year — about 38,000 more cords per year than they proposed to cut last November and 40 percent more cords than were actually harvested in 2012. 

To accomplish that goal would require cutting more big trees and growing more small ones, at least on some portions, agreed Tom Charles, the expert in applied forest management at the DPPL.

Charles offered reasons for doing so — there were too many trees and cutting more would reduce the possibility of spruce budworm infestations and improve lynx habitat. Spruce budworm is being seen north of the Saint Lawrence, not here, and lynx only inhabit about 11,000 acres, according to Charles. I asked him if there was a move within the DPPL to put timber management first, no longer co-equal with wildlife and recreation management.

He paused.

“Some might think so,” he said, then added that the DPPL would “work to keep” the same diverse management approach used now in the Bigelow Preserve, the Mahoosuc mountains, and the Deboullie Pond area near the Allagash.

Morrison said he stands behind the review process in place that measures whether the new targets are sustainable.

That seems unlikely to stop more questions from coming about why the DPPL is apparently in the process of making a substantial shift in their caretaking of the public’s land without informing the public.

Charles said the public review process was three-fold: the five-year meeting that was just held (where timber management was off the agenda) and the annual report showing changes in timber harvest goals, which is available on the Department of Conservation website (after significant searching), and when the public sees a timber harvest they don’t like and complain.

At the August 15 meeting Eickenberg said she would be happy to provide more information on any topic requested.

“I didn’t know until tonight there was a new policy on harvesting timber,” said committee member Cathy Johnson. “If you don’t have that info, you don’t know what to ask for.”