AUGUSTA, Maine — A plan within the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to markedly increase timber harvesting limits on publicly owned lands has caused concern among environmentalists who say the increase is unsustainable.
Department spokesman John Bott confirmed Monday that the department has internally agreed to increase the timber harvesting limit on public lands from last year’s ceiling of 115,000 cords to 141,000 cords in the current fiscal year, 160,000 cords in 2015 and 180,000 cords in 2016. The limit would remain at 180,000 cords per year for 20 years thereafter as long as periodic evaluation of the plan deems it appropriate.
Cathy Johnson, North Woods Project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Monday that the state’s forestry experts found in 2013 that the scientifically sustainable threshold for timber harvesting on public lands is 141,500 cords per year.
“The state is planning to cut forests faster than they are growing back, and cut the best trees owned by the people of Maine,” said Johnson in a written statement. “Maine’s previous policy was to grow bigger, older trees on public lands because there are so few places left in northern Maine with anything close to a mature forest with older trees. But the administration’s plan would be a complete reversal.”
According to an annual report that will be delivered to the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee on Tuesday, the Maine Forest Service has been warning the Bureau of Public Lands that it should raise the limits in order to avoid “continued increases” in the amount of timber dying before it can be harvested and to lessen the risk to forests of spruce budworm and other insects and diseases.
“Spruce budworm impacts historically have become epidemic throughout northern New England and Canada every 30 to 40 years,” reads the report. “Populations are building to our north and it seems likely that this major threat to the state’s fir and spruce resource will arrive in large numbers sometime in the next five years or so.”
Harvests last year were above the limit. Approximately 145,000 cords were harvested in fiscal year 2013 from about 11,000 acres out of 400,000 acres of public lands that are forested, according to the report.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, based on documents it obtained from the state, says the plan to increase timber harvesting on public lands was developed privately and without input from lawmakers or the public and without justifying the change scientifically. It argues that the plan would result in overcutting on lands that are valued as wildlife habitats, for recreation and for high-quality timber. The approximately 400,000 acres of Maine forests — totaling less than 3 percent of the state’s 17.6 million acres of timberlands — are publicly owned, according to NRCM and the Department of Public Lands. Money from the harvests on state land is used for improvements such as roads, campsites and outhouses.
“Maine’s public forests have some of the best mature forest remaining in northern Maine and provide important habitat for those species like pine martens and black-backed woodpeckers that need mature forest,” said Johnson. “The Bureau of Parks and Lands should determine harvest levels for public lands based on the most recent scientific forest inventory and seek public comments before any increase in timber harvesting beyond the sustainable harvest level of 141,500 cords per year. This is a clear case of forest management driven by politics, not science.”
Bott said Monday afternoon that he could not answer a list of questions posed by the BDN but that Director of Parks and Lands Will Harris is scheduled to discuss this issue and others contained in the report with members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee at 2 p.m. on Tuesday.
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who is a logger by trade, said Monday that he agrees with the concept of increasing harvest limits generally, but would oppose it if Gov. Paul LePage continues to reject attempts to restrict timber harvesting on public lands to Maine harvesters only. Last year, LePage vetoed two bills by Jackson, LD 491 and LD 1103, which would have done just that. The vetoes were sustained by 18-17 and 17-16 votes in the Senate, respectively.
“What is interesting about this is that the governor, even under the harvesting levels we have right now, won’t even say it can only be U.S. workers on those lands,” said Jackson, the Senate majority leader. “That’s where the rubber is going to hit the road. … If you won’t make sure that Maine workers are getting the benefits of those jobs, why bother increasing the limits?”
Johnson said she suspects that the LePage administration wants to use some of the additional revenues generated by increasing the timber harvesting limits for a program that helps Mainers convert from oil to biomass or pellet heating systems. A bill advocating such a concept — LD 1468, which is still active in legislative files — was introduced last year by Jackson.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett announced Monday afternoon that LePage will hold a news conference Tuesday morning to discuss energy policy.
“The governor wants Mainers to have access to $1 million so they can choose what method of reducing their heating costs works best for them (heat pumps, pellet stoves, etc.),” wrote Bennett in response to questions from the BDN.
Bennett did not respond to further inquiries about how the program would be funded.
An earlier version of this story reported on the increase of 115,000 cords per acre per year. It is not per acre.