Forty years ago the Maine Legislature stepped in when uncontrolled development threatened the 10.4 million acre North Woods, which was not only a natural treasure but an economic engine for the state’s forest-products industry. The state created the Land Use Regulation Commission, known as LURC.

Today, a different group of lawmakers is looking at the same vast territory and questioning if the safeguards that were put in place back then are still working. While there is plenty of evidence that there are problems, the proposed solution — eliminating the commission and giving its work to county governments — is far too drastic. There is a strong case to be made for modernizing the forest management system, but not for destroying it.

This year, lawmakers considered a bill supported by Senate President Kevin Raye, a Washington County legislator, which would give the panel’s duties to the eight county governments that contain part of the unorganized territories.

ISSUE OF CONTROL

Raye describes it as an issue of local control. In any municipality in Maine, a landowner can go to the town office to pull a building permit or present plans to a board made up of his neighbors. In the unorganized territories, the same property owner, depending on his plans, would have to apply to Augusta, and go through what many describe as a slow and unwieldy process controlled by people who don’t have to live with the consequences.

The Legislature created a study commission that will begin meeting in September to make a recommendation on the commission’s future in January. The key question will be whether LURC should be reformed or put out of business.

The poster child for the alleged bureaucratic malaise is Plum Creek Timber Co.’s five-year struggle to get permission for a massive conservation and development proposal that is still tied up in litigation. Opposition to the proposal did not come from its potential neighbors, but from distant environmental groups, who had equal standing before the commission.

Some would argue they had even better standing since one of the public hearings on the plan was held in Portland, a six-hour drive away from the proposed development. But the Plum Creek case is so unusual that it is not a helpful case study to frame this debate. The development that was proposed was so large — the biggest in Maine history — and the environmental impacts so significant, it would have been a complicated planning exercise in any community.

The proposed solution — turning planning over to the county governments — has the potential to make large-scale proposals like Plum Creek’s unthinkable. The plan eventually approved by LURC balanced conservation with development on a footprint that crossed county lines and would have been much more difficult to accomplish without a single planning authority.

No county currently has a planning board, staff or expertise. Every county with land under the current jurisdiction of the land use panel would have to develop expertise quickly, as Maine’s forest economy is changing rapidly.

The forest, twice the size of the state of Connecticut, was owned by four individuals and 16 corporations back in 1970. Today, paper companies have mostly sold their holdings and there are dozens of property owners, including real estate investors who are looking for a quicker payday than what can be delivered by growing trees.

NEW USES

Instead of primitive camps that were built by and for hunters and fishermen, people are building modern four-season vacation homes, and the new owners do not necessarily have the same openness to public access as the old corporate owners of the past.

These changes don’t recognize political subdivisions, and LURC, not a county government, is best suited to address the changing nature of the woods and its uses.

What has not changed since 1971 is that the North Woods is a unique resource that feeds the whole state’s economy, identity and sense of place. Regulation of this singular resource should be updated, but not scattered to eight different county governments.

Lawmakers should use the tools available to them to modernize their responsibility, not abdicate it now when it’s needed more than ever.