Maine’s largest timberland owners are once again asking to be exempt from a federal desig-nation affecting thousands of square miles of Canada lynx territory in a handful of states.
Nearly two years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service excluded all land in the state from the controversial “critical habitat” provision of the En-dangered Species Act.
At the time, federal biologists argued that Maine’s timberland owners already work well with biologists and researchers to protect populations of the threatened wildcat. Environ-mental groups, however, ac-cused the agency of caving in to Maine’s large forest products industry.
An ensuing political med-dling scandal in Washington, D.C., prompted the agency to scrap the entire critical habitat designation for lynx last year. A revised critical habitat pro-posal, released earlier this year, reinserted 10,600 square miles of lynx territory encompassing much of northern Maine.
But Maine landowners are once again petitioning for ex-clusion. To bolster the request, the Maine Forest Products Council has put forward a de-tailed, voluntary conservation plan that representatives claim will benefit the lynx more than additional federal oversight.
“What we are proposing is something different,” said Pat-rick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, whose members own nearly 75 percent of the land within the proposed designa-tion. “It’s designed to determine what is best for the biology of the species, and our feet are held to the fire by the out-comes.”
“Critical habitat” designa-tion means that a landowner or developer must submit to an additional layer of bureaucratic review for any projects involv-ing federal money or permits.
The vast majority of re-viewed projects are allowed to go forward as planned, and pro-jects on private land that do not have any federal involvement are not subject to additional review. Yet many landowners, distrustful of the federal wild-life law, strongly oppose desig-nation.
Strauch said his organiza-tion’s membership fear critical habitat designation could be-come a way for other groups to use the courts to force land-owners to change their prac-tices. Strauch and others argue that Maine has the largest lynx population in the lower 48 states because of the forest products industry.
The conservation agreement includes: continued funding for lynx-related research, includ-ing habitat mapping and model-ing; development of landscape-scale planning guidelines for both lynx and other species; annual monitoring and report-ing; development of additional training on lynx management for woods workers.
“It’s not prescriptive. It is outcome-based,” Strauch said. “It provides the [Fish and Wild-life] Service with a pretty valu-able relationship with the land-owners.”
The agency also has proposed exempting five landowners that are working with federal biolo-gists to develop lynx manage-ment plans for 680,000 acres in Maine through the federal Healthy Forest Restoration Act.
Environmental groups will likely contest the exclusion of Maine’s commercial forests.
Tara Thornton, Maine organ-izer for the Endangered Species Coalition, said it’s an im-provement that the voluntary lynx-management agreements will be in writing this time. But Thornton said studies have shown that species fare better when critical habitat has been designated.
“We feel critical habitat in Maine is important for the re-covery of the lynx,” she said. “We want to see that the land they need to thrive and recover is protected.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on the Canada lynx critical habitat proposal, a draft economic analysis accompany-ing the proposal as well as the potential exclusions. Comments will be accepted through Nov. 20 at: Public Comment Process-ing, Attn: FWS-R6-ES-2008-0026, Division of Policy and Direc-tives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222, Ar-lington, VA 22203.
Comments also can be filed electronically by going to www.regulations.gov and fol-lowing the instructions for submitting comments.
The service also will hold a public informational meeting from 2 to 4 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Black Bear Inn in Orono. Agency staff will give an over-view of the proposal and an-swer any questions.