Maine’s 17 million-plus acres of forest have long been a source of industry. The wood became the ships of one era, the paper of another, and continues to drive the state economy, generating more than $5 billion in annual revenue and directly supporting more than 19,000 jobs.
Public reserved lands represent just a small part of that forest, 600,000 acres owned by the state and managed for recreation and wildlife by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Two-thirds of that land is open for timber harvesting, and the bureau has historically handled that harvesting with a focus on the people and animals who use the land, not its commercial viability.
Now, Gov. Paul LePage wants to shift that focus. The governor already has increased drastically the amount of wood cut on public lands, and he wants to increase it further, and put the lands under the authority of the Maine Forest Service, whose mission differs from that of the bureau.
It is the latest in a series of moves that shows the governor doesn’t see the land as much more than a revenue source, and as a bargaining chip in political battles. The hikers, hunters, fishermen and foresters who admire this land know otherwise, however, and it is their lead the state should follow.
The state harvested roughly 155,000 cords of wood on public lands last year, a number that exceeds the bureau’s recommendation. LePage’s proposal would increase that to 180,000 cords per year, representing a 56 percent increase since his first year in office.
The revenue generated by the harvest would be used to help replace old, inefficient home furnaces – in effect replacing work done by Efficiency Maine, one of the governor’s frequent targets and a recent victim of his political maneuvering.
The plan is identical to one forwarded by LePage last year and rejected by the Legislature. But this time, LePage has leverage, in the form of $11.4 million in bonds the governor is refusing to sign until he gets his way.
At least there’s some congruency here. LePage, in forwarding a timber-harvesting policy that would harm Maine’s public lands, is holding hostage money approved by voters for Land for Maine’s Future, a highly successful program that, separate from the public reserved lands, has preserved forever more than 300,000 acres for hunting, fishing and other kinds of outdoor recreation.
That, the governor says, is enough. “The state already has 800,000 acres of public land,” a LePage spokesman said recently.
LePage is hoping the specter of Mainers suffering in the cold, or the threat of losing the land bonds, forces lawmakers to follow his wishes.
But that view slights the hard work that went into the deals covered by land bonds. It dismisses the will of the voters who approved them, and the longstanding Maine tradition of preserving access to recreational lands. It neglects the fact there are other, proven ways to fund the furnace program.
And, finally, it dismisses the value of public lands. They are an asset to this state, not a resource to be mined.