June 21, 2018
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Commissioners stand pat on forest proposal

By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

GREENVILLE, Maine — The Piscataquis County commissioners recently took no action on a resolution sought by the Maine Woods Coalition to oppose a pilot forest proposal that’s being jointly prepared by federal and state officials, environmental groups and landowners.

The draft proposal, called “Keeping Maine’s Forests,” is geared toward a sustainably managed forest, one that continues to allow wood harvesting, protects ecological values, and improves recreational opportunities, say its drafters.

Skeptical of the effort, the nonprofit Maine Woods Coalition, which represents mostly northern and central Maine residents, has asked officials in Aroostook, Piscataquis, Somerset and Penobscot Counties to sign a resolution to stop what it calls a “back door” approach to turn the northern Maine forest into a national park.

“We are very concerned about anything that threatens the future of the working forest. That’s why we oppose these types of efforts because we don’t see them of being help to us here,” Eugene Conologue, Millinocket’s town manager and vice president of the coalition, said recently. ”All they do is shuffle public funds, taxpayers dollars, to private individuals on behalf of environmental groups.”

In his recommendation to take no action on the coalition’s request, Piscataquis County Commissioner Eric Ward noted the wide spectrum of land interests represented on the Keeping Maine’s Forests Committee. They include the Penobscot Nation, the Maine Department of Conservation, Maine Forest Products Council, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Katahdin Forest Management, the Sierra Club, Huber Resources, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and Small Woodlot Owners. “If they’re all working together, then let them work together,” he said.

Sangerville, Guilford, Millinocket, Medway and East Millinocket officials have stated their opposition to the proposal, while Lincoln sided with Piscataquis County officials.

Greenville Town Manager John Simko, who plans to recommend that his board also take no action, said the proposal is a work in process. “I think it would be premature to oppose what they’re trying to do before they even define what that is,” Simko said recently.

“We have stated and we have put in writing that this is not about a national park, this is not about a national forest,” committee member Alec Giffin of the Maine Forest Service said recently.

Giffin stressed that he found it “incredibly ironic” that the coalition is opposed to a document that would do everything the coalition supports.

“It’s keeping the forest— keeping it actively managed, keeping it the raw material base for our forest products industry, strengthening the forest products industry, maintaining traditional uses — you know, snowmobiling, hiking and hunting and fishing. That’s what this is all about; that’s what we’re trying to do,” Giffin said.

“If you take the time to read the proposal, it talks about six different reasons to preserve land for the future, and one of them is to protect the economics of the rural community that are centered around the forest products industry,” Rick Merk, president of the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine and a committee mem-ber, said recently. “Which means it is not taking land out of the current use — it’s trying to sustain land in its current use. That’s the reason I support it.”

Matt Dunlap, who represents the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine on the committee, said it’s the distrust of government in general that raises red flags with some people when the subject is land conservation. “I think it’s a great opportunity, “ he said of the proposal.

Those assurances aren’t convincing enough for the coalition. “We know that some of these environmental groups are very much disposed toward a national park,” Conologue said. “They are very much disposed toward hurting the economy of northern Maine by defeating our forest products industry, and they do that through the placement of conservation easements and purchasing land.”

The goals of the environmental groups are to “be patient and do this incrementally if they can’t do it all at once,” and this is another one of these incremental types of things that sounds good, Conologue said. He also faulted the committee’s composition, which he said was selective and secretive.

Merk said there has been no secrecy involved. Briefings have been held since February around the state, although he added he would like more people to comment on the proposal.

“I think it’s intuitive to have a concern, but I think that if [coalition members] take the time to study it and if they have trust, they would support it,” Merk

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