LURC and the vitality of Northern Maine

Posted March 09, 2012, at 2:06 p.m.

Behind all the rhetoric on rural land-use planning is a misunderstanding. At the heart of LD 1798, the LURC reform bill, a law that proposes reform in how we carry out planning and permitting in our Unorganized Territory, is an expansion of the statement of purpose.

For 40 years, the statutory directive to regulators has been “to control … preserve … prevent” on the 10-million acres of private land in Maine’s UT. All these qualities are reaffirmed in LD 1798, and it has simply added such directives as “to support … encourage … honor … conserve.”

For the first time in 40 years, the proposed statutes mentions such concepts as “the rights and participation of property owners” and makes the suggestion that land use planning for the unorganized half of Maine might also “encourage and facilitate regional economic viability.” This is simply reasonable.

The concept of being able to transfer, under the most strict oversight, planning and permitting from a LURC-like entity to oversight by the same statute that oversees organized towns and municipalities is neither radical nor can it ever occur unless ultimately approved by the Legislature itself. This is hardly license.

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At a most elemental level, what opponents to LD 1798 seem to want is to preserve rural Maine in formaldehyde as it was back when LURC was first established in 1971 — not back to the Penobscot Nation landscape of 1771, not the open agrarian landscape of 1871, not a dynamic evolving agrarian eco-economy landscape of the future, but just 1971.

And how has this 1971 Luddite philosophy affected people? In 1971, the average family income of Millinocket was about the same as that in Cape Elizabeth. Over the subsequent 40 years, the people of Millinocket and the rural northern Maine woods have had very little to say about their land use plans and have fared poorly. Are not these people, landowners, communities of northern Maine, the true conservationists? Should they not have a say?

LD 1798 simply gives them a little more say about the land they own and love.

This said, alongside “preserving and preventing,” here is what it might mean to “support, encourage, honor and conserve”:

There are growing indicators that northern Maine is posed for revitalization. Recent timber forecasts project significant increases in sustainable biomass over the next 20 years. Pockets of intensive silviculture are demonstrating potential yields three and four times traditional growth rates per acre. The region’s freshwater and mineral resources are world class, near the surface, concentrated and located on private land. Organic and niche farming, expanding maple-sugar operations and new markets for residual woods from chemicals in Old Town to torrefied wood coal in Millinocket illustrate new agricultural and forestry paradigms.

Maine’s eco-economy has potential. Ninety percent of northern Maine remains in private ownership; the speculators and national park extremists are giving way to Maine loggers moving into land ownership and mills and conservationists partnering with working forests. After 40 years of treating northern Maine as the American West — all public lands and public assets — there is a growing recognition that Northern Maine is actually made up of private assets on which we aspire to add public values and public access.

Northern Maine adjoins low-cost hydro and hydrocarbon assets of Canada. Eastport and Sears Island are both 700 miles closer to Europe, Gibraltar and the Middle East than is the port of Savannah, Ga. Seven major rivers all originate in our vast, forested unorganized townships.

Our canoe, hiking, snowmobile, ATV and biking trails constitute outdoor recreation corridors that extend thousands of miles. New Zealand has nothing on our huts and trails; the Rockies can’t compete with our native Maine brook trout; our ocean sailing is the best west of the Aegean.

This extraordinary asset we call Northern Maine is being confronted with an extraordinary opportunity. Reactive land use regulation is being peeled away; world-class ecosystems are being preserved and protected; favorable property tax treatment for commercial forestlands, agriculture, open space and wildlife protection can be counted on. Our deepwater ports are emerging; we are producing natural-resource products at record levels, from pulp and paper to maple sugar and lobsters.

This is the spring to tap our trees.

Bill Beardsley is commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation.

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