Gov. Paul LePage has insisted for more than a year that contractors cut more timber from state-owned forests and that the state use the additional revenue to fund heating upgrades for low-income, rural households.
Lawmakers from both parties have turned back LePage’s plans more than once. Now, a commission specially appointed to evaluate the governor’s proposal and determine how the state should spend the revenue it collects from logging on 400,000 acres of public land has concluded LePage’s plan doesn’t pass legal muster.
The 15-member commission — formed as part of the two-year state budget that passed in June — met throughout the fall to examine the history, laws and management practices for Maine’s public lands. In total, those lands include more than 600,000 acres spread across much of the state (logging is allowed on about 400,000) that are open to the public and have their roots in the days before Maine became a state.
The panel’s final recommendations, issued earlier this month, offer guidance to current and future policymakers on proper and legal uses of the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund, the account that receives revenues from timber harvesting on public lands. Beyond that, if the Legislature accepts the commission’s recommendations, the panel has set the stage for making public lands better known and more accessible to Maine residents and visitors, making their management and timber harvesting operations more transparent and subject to public input, and ensuring their sound management to support the multiple uses specified for the lands — conservation, recreation and timber harvesting — in Maine law.
The group’s recommendations include:
— A requirement that the public lands management fund maintain a $2.5 million balance at the start of each fiscal year. That’s a wise move to ensure the fund — which fully pays the salaries of the foresters and others involved in managing the public lands — remains solvent throughout the year, especially during the off-season when logging revenues aren’t flowing in. The policy also keeps the fund off-limits for policymakers, including the governor, who might want to tap it for other priorities.
— Additional legislative oversight — including opportunities for public comment — when the Bureau of Parks and Lands is deciding how much wood to cut from state forests each season and additional reporting to the Legislature on logging operations.
— Developing a list of recreational priorities for public lands — investments that can make the parcels more accessible to the public and, thus, better known and better used for outdoor recreation. The commission also suggested investments in better signage as an appropriate use of the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund.
The Public Reserved Lands Management Fund can’t be used for just any purpose. That’s because Maine holds the lands as part of a public trust, with the original, legally binding terms — for purposes of education and “ministry” — defined in 1820 when Maine split from Massachusetts. Legal authorities over the years have interpreted those original terms to allow the management fund to pay for the preservation of the lands for the multiple public uses now specified in state law. In a legal opinion prepared for the public lands commission in October, Attorney General Janet Mills wrote that LePage’s proposal to use the funds for residential heating upgrades “would likely meet great skepticism from the Court.”
The commission, in its final report, wrote that permissible uses for the fund include improving wildlife habitat; purchasing more public land; infrastructure investments to improve signage and accessibility, especially for those with disabilities; and paying for logging education programs.
While we don’t necessarily agree that all of those permissible uses should be a priority, we appreciate the work of the commission in defining how the public lands fund can be used.
We doubt the commission’s work will persuade LePage to drop his proposal to use logging revenues for heating systems, but the commission’s work should end that debate once and for all.