AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee on Tuesday questioned the motives behind the Bureau of Parks and Land’s intention to increase the limit for timber harvesting on public lands over the next two years.
Will Harris, director of the bureau, delivered his annual report and the plan to increase timber harvesting to the committee Tuesday afternoon, just hours after Gov. Paul LePage announced a plan to use revenues from the program to fund conversions of Mainers’ heating systems away from oil. While Harris said there was no connection between LePage’s proposal and increasing the limits, some lawmakers said it appears to be too much of a coincidence.
“I’m really concerned about what the public lands are being used for,” said Rep. Peter Kent, D-Woolwich, during more than two hours of discussion about the proposal. “It seems apparent to me that this money is going to a policy initiative for the governor that’s in the news right now.”
Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, agreed.
“I don’t know if this is a coincidence or not,” said Hickman, before reading part of an online newspaper article about LePage’s proposal to the committee. “I just wanted people who are listening to hear that because it seems to me that’s what this is about.”
Patrick Woodcock, who directs LePage’s energy office, said earlier in the day that there was no connection between the bureau’s action and LePage’s proposal.
At issue is the Bureau of Lands’ intent to increase the limit on timber harvests on public lands from 141,500 cords per year now to 180,000 cords in 2016. There are approximately 400,000 acres of publicly owned land in Maine that are forested. Last year, approximately 145,000 cords were harvested from about 11,000 acres of that land. The state earns approximately $36 a cord, minus overhead costs such as building and maintaining roads to access the trees. That means that after the increases go into full effect, the state will gross approximately $1.4 million per year more than what it is earning now.
LePage proposed Tuesday to use $1 million a year from that revenue stream to fund heating system conversions through Efficiency Maine. Currently, all revenue from the harvesting is funnelled into the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund, which supports the bureau’s activities ranging from wildlife habitat management to providing recreational access.
Harris said Tuesday that the intent of increasing the limit — which was proposed to his bureau by the Maine Forest Service — is to reduce the overall cordage average across all public lands from about 23 cords per acre to 21.5. He said the move is necessary to avoid wasting prime timber by letting it grow past maturity and to lessen the impact of an expected spruce budworm outbreak in the coming years. Spruce budworm is an invasive species that can devastate wide swaths of forest.
“It wasn’t a funding issue,” said Harris. “There’s going to be more money made off of it but that’s not what drove it.”
Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, said the conclusion in the annual report presented to the committee Tuesday contradicts that statement.
“The Public Reserved Lands Management Fund is under considerable pressure to meet increasing demands to cover rising costs in such areas as personnel services, health care, land acquisition, vehicle rental, information technology and public information while assuming management responsibility for more and more non-revenue-generating acres and activities,” reads the conclusion. “The bureau has made a concerted effort to increase the volume of timber harvested.”
Harris said he would “stand by” his previous statements.
“It is true that we have in the past had a lot of challenges financially but that’s not why we increased [timber harvest limits] above what we’d had,” said Harris. “The fact I didn’t put that in the conclusion is my fault.”
Harris said the first he heard of plans to divert some of the harvesting revenue was after the introduction of LD 1468, a bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash last year that contains a concept similar to LePage’s new initiative.
“After that bill came out we received an inquiry from the [LePage] administration as to what’s the level of harvesting that maintains sustainability,” said Harris.
It’s unclear what the committee could do about the timber harvesting limits — providing a majority of members want to do anything at all — since increasing the limits isn’t subject to legislative review. Committee Chairwoman Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, said the committee would continue the discussion Thursday afternoon.