AUGUSTA, Maine — A deal Maine struck with Irving Woodlands, made public Friday, has sparked concern among environmental groups that the state has handed the company a “big loophole” to avoid state regulations on clearcutting.
Forestry experts, though, believe those concerns are misplaced and that the deal allows Irving, Maine’s largest landowner, to be more efficient in its harvesting techniques and reflects the evolution of modern forestry practices.
Irving signed the five-year deal with the Maine Forest Service in May 2012. It enters the company’s 1.25 million acres, almost all of which are in Aroostook County, into an experimental forestry program known as Outcomes Based Forestry, which was created by statute in 2001. The deal was publicly disclosed for the first time earlier this month in a report the Maine Forest Service prepared for the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee, which met on Friday to discuss the program.
The original 2001 law never intended Outcomes Based Forestry to be tried on such a large area of land, according to Pete Didisheim, senior director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
He supports experimenting with Outcomes Based Forestry, but told the Bangor Daily News the deal with Irving “looks like a big loophole” and threatens Maine’s 17 million acres of forestland.
The Maine Forest Service, also in May 2012, entered into a similar agreement with Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, which manages approximately 600,000 acres.
At issue is the experimental nature of the program, which was created in 2001 “to address the aspects of the Forest Practices Act” — passed in 1989 to regulate the use of clearcutting, a controversial but often misunderstood forestry practice in which all the trees in an area are cut down — “that prevented or frustrated the wise use of scientific forestry,” according to the Maine Forest Service report.
The original law said Outcomes Based Forestry could be used on no more than six lots, with no single area exceeding 100,000 acres and the total acreage in the program not exceeding 200,000 acres.
The program garnered little interest from timberland owners, so amendments over the years were adopted to make the program more attractive to them. Those amendments, however, have altered the program beyond its original intent, Didisheim said. The acreage cap was removed in 2007, and a sunset clause was removed in 2012.
“The original intent was very clear,” Didisheim said. “The lawmakers, and those proposing Outcomes Based Forestry, described small-scale projects that would be an opportunity to experiment with different approaches to timber harvesting that would be outside the Forest Practices Act. At no point did anybody envision — and nobody suggested — that the scale of these experiments would be in the million-acres-plus size, which is a huge amount of land to be experimenting on and to be relieved from clearcutting regulations in the Forest Practices Act.”
However, to Max McCormick, who has worked in the forestry industry for 60 years, Outcomes Based Forestry is not an experiment. It represents modern forestry practices, which take into account technological changes and knowledge not available when the Forest Practices Act was created, McCormick told the BDN.
Where the Forest Practices Act “follows a mechanically imposed set of dimensions,” Outcomes Based Forestry introduces “scientific forestry,” said McCormick, who is a research professor emeritus of forest resources at the University of Maine.
The experimental nature of the program, he said, is solely from a policy perspective as government plays catch-up with what he believes should be industry standards.
“There are no real exemptions,” McCormick said. “This isn’t turning a landowner loose to go on a rampage of clearcutting. It brings science to bear. It is all done with a multilayered monitoring system, which involves third-party certification.”
Under the program, Irving is exempt from certain sections of the Forest Practices Act that cover clearcutting. But the company is still required to abide by other state statutes and sustainability goals, is still subject to oversight by the Maine Forest Service and needs to maintain third-party forest certification from groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
In addition, the governor’s office in 2011 appointed a five-member panel of technical experts to monitor and assess the results of Outcomes Based Forestry practices. McCormick sits on this panel.
If Irving proposed a plan for a large clearcut — which is sometimes the right choice for a forest, McCormick said — “they’re still going to have to jump through hoops, stand on their heads and clap their hands to the music and the whole thing before we sit back and say that looks like the right thing to do.”
Not everyone appointed to the panel agreed. Bill Patterson, northern Maine program manager at The Nature Conservancy and an original member of the technical panel, resigned his seat on Aug. 1.
In his resignation letter, Patterson wrote, “Rather than evaluate specific outcomes or alternatives to the Forest Practices Act (FPA) regulations, the panel has decided that inclusion of land in a recognized forest certification system is, de facto, all that is required for participation in an Outcome Based Forestry experiment. This may or may not be the right approach for the program, but I believe that it is a decision that warrants broader input as it represents a significant change in state policy.”
A ‘catalyst’ for investment
Irving Woodlands, which harvests more than a million tons of softwood and hardwood from only 2 percent of its land each year, denies it’s being given a loophole to avoid regulations.
“Outcome based forestry — including provisions regarding clear-cutting — requires more accountability measures that must be submitted to the Maine Forest Service on an annual basis,” Blake Brunsdon, Irving’s chief forester, said in a statement to the BDN. “We believe the forest management we practice is sustainable, based on good science and meets the rigorous standards of the independent Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative forest certification programs.”
In its first year of participation in the program, Irving claims its contractors’ earnings have increased 21 percent and its road construction and maintenance budget has decreased by $825,000, according to Mary Keith, a spokeswoman for J.D. Irving Ltd., Irving Woodlands’ parent company.
In addition, Keith said entering the program was “a catalyst and the foundation” of the company’s decision to invest upwards of $30 million to construct a new sawmill in Ashland that will employ 63 people.
The company expects to increase its softwood harvest by 70 percent over the next 35 years, largely a result of the company’s commitment to sustainable forestry practices, Keith said. In 2013, the company invested $3 million in its future forests in Maine, a $1 million increase from the year before, and planted 3 million trees on its Maine land, she said.
While it’s inevitable politics become involved in situations like this, this is not a case of one governor’s administration unilaterally changing the rules for an industry. The acreage cap on the program was lifted under the Baldacci administration, and the Maine Forest Service has been advocating for Outcomes Based Forestry since at least 1999.
In its State of the Forest report, published that year, the forest service said the Forest Practices Act, which it described as “a command and control regulatory framework,” had limitations and could lead to unintended consequences, “such as forest fragmentation and premature harvesting to recover equity in a forest investment.”
The report continued: “The Maine Forest Service believes the state should begin to focus more on outcome-based forestry regulation, on the premise that this approach will do more to promote, stimulate and reward excellent forest management yet still provide a baseline of regulatory protection for critical public resources.”
McCormick said it all boils down to one simple idea: “We want to bring science to bear. … That’s the bottom line.”