AUGUSTA, Maine — After months of discussion and several promising meetings with Obama administration officials, a working group is completing a pitch for federal funding for “landscape-scale” conservation in Maine’s North Woods that would also strengthen the state’s forest products industry.
Last summer during a visit to Maine, U.S. Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar expressed interest in hearing suggestions about how the federal government could help Maine preserve large swaths of forestland.
But Salazar made clear that any proposal would need a broad base of support that includes landowners and industry.
In the months since, a coalition of interest groups that do not always see eye to eye on conservation issues — large timberland owners, paper mills, environmental groups and state agencies — have worked to come up with a possible model program for not only Maine but also the nation.
The initiative gained momentum in November when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack requested that Maine propose a pilot project for forestland conservation built around existing federal programs.
The result is a draft proposal for a public-private partnership — dubbed the “Great Maine Forest Initiative” — to protect anywhere from 500,000 to 2 million acres of working forests in the largest unfragmented forest east of the Mississippi River.
“At its heart, this is a proposal to maintain a sustainably managed forest landscape, which continues to produce wood products and protects ecological values, while maintaining and improving recreational opportunities,” reads a draft outline of the report.
What the Great Maine Forest Initiative is not proposing, coalition members and state officials insist, is a national park, a national forest or any other significant expansion of public lands in Maine.
Suggestions for another national park in Maine are “a no-starter with me,” Gov. John Baldacci said this week. “I am proud of Maine’s leadership and what we have been able to do on our own … We would be using federal dollars, and the attraction of the federal government is the opportunity to have conservation on a landscape scale.”
The proposal calls for working with landowners to protect land largely through conservation easements. Some “special places,” such as old-growth forests or areas with particular value from a recreational or ecological standpoint, could be purchased from willing property owners with the help of federal dollars.
Marcia McKeague of Katahdin Timberlands — the dominant landowner in the Millinocket area — said she and other landowners would like to explore ways to make conservation easements more attractive to landowners from an economic standpoint.
McKeague, who has been involved in discussions on the Great Maine Forest Initiative since the fall, said the dialogue among task force members has been good so far.
“It is too early to say for sure, but I think it does have potential,” she said.
Rather than creating an entirely new federal program, the initiative would likely seek to expand existing programs. For instance, there could be ways to translate current USDA programs that encourage farmers to set aside environmentally sensitive land to forestlands as well.
Alec Giffen, director of the Maine Forest Service, said the public already has recreational access to much of the private timberland in the state. But the public also benefits from sustainable forest management practices that protect water quality or offer winter habitat to deer.
“If we want landowners to provide those types of services to all of us, then we need to provide ways to make it economically worth their while to do so,” Giffen said.
Two existing programs that would likely serve as models or foundations for new public-private conservation partnerships are the USDA’s Forest Legacy program and the Land for Maine’s Future program.
Maine has been one of the largest beneficiaries of the Forest Legacy program, receiving millions of dollars to protect ecologically important or threatened working forests in private hands. Forest Legacy funding is often combined with the Land for Maine’s Future program, which utilizes voter-approved bonds to protect from de-velopment valuable working forests and farmland.
Patrick McGowan, commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, said the initiative would also focus on certifying more timberland as being managed sustainably. Certification through the Forest Stewardship Council or other third parties could increase the value of or the demand for Maine forest products.
McGowan also sees potential for a “Great Maine Forest” brand attached to wood products, whether lumber for houses or paper.
“Maine has an ability to brand nationally,” McGowan said.
Other aspects of the initiative would focus on ways to lower energy costs or increase efficiency at mills and convert to locally grown “green” fuel sources.
Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, credited some of the representatives of environmental groups — including Maine Audubon’s Ted Koffman and the Sierra Club’s Karen Woodsum — with working hard to keep landowners involved in the discussion, even if all parties don’t always agree.
“We are all still sitting at the table,” said Strauch, whose organization represents most of the state’s largest landowners. “That is why I am cautiously optimistic … that something meaningful can come out of it.”
Other members of the working group include representatives from Huber Resources, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Prentiss & Carlisle, the Trust for Public Land, the Maine Tree Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, the Maine Quality of Place Council, Baskahegan Co., the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, the Forest Society of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club.