AUGUSTA, Maine — Representatives of Maine’s forestry and wood products industries urged state lawmakers on Wednesday to protect funding for programs that they claim are critical to ensuring the state’s forests are managed sustainably.
As part of required budget cuts for the current fiscal year, the Department of Conservation has proposed eliminating a program in which Maine’s timberlands are surveyed regularly to monitor for forest health.
Cutting the program would save more than $97,000 by eliminating five full-time positions as well as more than a dozen other positions that are jointly funded by the federal government.
Instead, the state will once again rely on forest inventory reports conducted by the U.S. Forest Service.
But representatives of Maine’s largest landowners, pulp and paper mills as well as environmental groups warned that such a move could lead to conflicts and harm the state’s effort to promote itself as a leader in sustainable forestry.
Speakers noted that the federal government only completes surveys every 10 years. That is too long a gap between reports given the rapidly changing pressures on forests, they said.
“At one point the [federal] report was six years late and that is unacceptable in a state that relies on its forest resources,” Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, told state lawmakers.
Wednesday was the third day of public hearings held by the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on proposals to trim approximately $140 million from the current budget year, which ends June 30.
Once lawmakers get through with the supplemental budget, they will face an even tougher task identifying more than $800 million in savings in the next two-year budget that begins July 1. Gov. John Baldacci’s administration is expected to unveil its proposal for the two-year budget on Friday.
On Monday, lawmakers heard emotional testimony from groups concerned about proposed cuts to health and human services and public safety program. Wednesday’s hearings focused largely on the state’s natural resources agencies, with the Department of Conservation’s proposals drawing the most public comment.
John Williams, president of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, said it is very important for his member companies to demonstrate both to the public and their customers that the wood is coming from sustainably managed forests.
The state’s inventory reports, through which the Maine Forest Service surveys plots in all parts of the state at least once every five years, help reassure the public and buyers about the health of the forests, Williams said.
Several speakers said a lack of up-to-date, accurate information on the health of Maine’s forests led to the controversial forestry referendums of the 1990s. Additionally, critics of the proposed cuts said pressure on forests is growing rapidly as industries and consumers return to wood as an energy source.
“Maine’s forests are not endless. There are a lot of competing uses,” said Jim Contino, fiber supply manager for Verso Paper.
Opposition to the cuts was not limited to Maine’s timber companies and mills, either.
“It’s not every day that I am in agreement with my brethren in the forest products industry,” said Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “But it would be a big mistake to eliminate the forest inventory program.”
Speakers also expressed concerns about DOC proposals to rely more heavily on the Civil Air Patrol, private pilots and other volunteers to spot and report forest fires as well as proposed cutbacks at the Land Use Regulation Commission.
One topic that was not discussed Wednesday is the proposed consolidation of some or all of the state’s natural resources agencies. That issue is certain to come up as the Legislature grapples with how to trim spending in the next, two-year budget.