Over the past few months, the revenue generated from the timber harvest on Maine’s public lands has been in the spotlight. The Bangor Daily News published an editorial Sept. 25 that highlights the numerous problems with Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to increase timber harvesting on these lands and divert timber harvest revenue to heating assistance for rural, low-income households. The BDN’s critique is right on target, but let’s delve a little more deeply. Many Mainers aren’t aware of what makes Maine’s public lands so special and what’s at stake if the governor gets his way.

The state manages more than 600,000 acres of land accessible to the public, including the iconic Bigelow Preserve in Stratton, the vast Nahmakanta Public Reserved Lands (south of Baxter State Park) and breathtaking Cutler Coast. These areas are prized for their exceptional recreation opportunities, outstanding wildlife habitat, high-quality timber and some of Maine’s only remaining old-growth forests.

The Bureau of Parks and Lands manages public lands for three primary values: wildlife habitat, recreation and timber harvesting. The bureau is required to practice exemplary forestry, producing a sustainable supply of timber that brings in enough revenue to support the bureau’s other programs related to recreation and wildlife habitat management. The revenue earned from timber sales is directly reinvested into a dedicated fund to manage the state’s public lands.

Many of Maine’s larger and older trees are found on public lands. These forest stands provide important ecological value and wildlife habitat. More than 70 percent of Maine’s vertebrate wildlife species use older, structurally complex forests, including many of our migratory songbirds that depend on these stands for breeding. These are places where people can hear the drumming of the yellow-bellied sapsucker or listen to the lilting song of the scarlet tanager. They can fish for brook trout in a shaded cold stream or marvel at a stand of trees weathered by wind and old age. Sometimes it’s better to let the trees grow beyond their typical commercial value to provide important ecological benefits.

The Legislature created a working group, the Commission to Study the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund, to examine the issue of harvest levels, the use of revenue generated by timber harvesting on public lands and other related issues. The commission, having held two meetings, seems right on track.

One of the biggest takeaways is that our public lands should not be managed primarily to maximize commercial timber value — they are not the state’s woodlot. Rather, they should be managed for wildlife, recreation and ecological values.

The commission has heard a bit about the Bureau of Public Land’s public trust responsibility with respect to our public lands and the income generated from the sale of timber on public lands. Revenue generated by harvesting on public lands should be reinvested in public lands. These lands are owned by and managed for the people of Maine. Any surplus revenue should be utilized to strengthen the other legs of the bureau’s stool — wildlife habitat and recreation.

The annual timber harvest level has been increased four times in as many years. Increasing the harvest level again could put at risk the other values the bureau must consider when creating its management plans. Further increasing the harvest level would likely result in more pressure to harvest highly valuable larger and older forest stands, crucial habitat for many wildlife species and an already diminishing resource.

We at Audubon hope that, with all of the attention being paid to our public lands, Maine people learn more about their special nature and take the opportunity to enjoy them. We’re also encouraged with the direction the commission is taking. The Bureau of Public Lands has done an excellent job caring for our public lands and can do more if allowed to reinvest its revenue into many unmet recreation and wildlife needs that will benefit all Mainers and Maine visitors.

Jenn Burns Gray is a staff attorney and advocate for Maine Audubon.