Members of the commission reviewing the management of Maine’s state-owned lands grappled Tuesday with whether to siphon off a portion of timber revenues to fund a LePage administration home heating program, especially given the turmoil in Maine’s pulp and paper industry.

For the past two years, Gov. Paul LePage has pushed unsuccessfully to increase the amount of wood harvested on Maine’s 400,000-plus acres of “public reserved lands” in hopes of earmarking up to $5 million for home heating programs for the poor and elderly.

Critics maintain, however, that state law only allows timber revenues to be reinvested in management of the state’s public lands – a position they say is supported by several court decisions – and that changing that restriction would set a dangerous precedent. LePage, meanwhile, has responded by refusing to release voter-approved bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program until lawmakers agree to free up timber revenues for his heating program, putting dozens of land conservation projects in limbo.

On Tuesday, Maine Forest Service director Doug Denico presented figures showing that the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund – in which timber revenues are deposited – had an available balance of roughly $7 million at the end of fiscal year 2015 after expenses. Denico also told commission members reviewing the fund that the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands needs about $2.5 million set aside to cover the bureau’s bills if timber revenues suddenly stop flowing in.

But there was confusion during the meeting of the Commission to Study the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund about how much money would be available. Commission co-Chair Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, indicated late Tuesday that the group, which was created during the last legislative session, would take another look at the fund’s finances.

“The committee needs to look at the balance sheet more closely and decide how we can sustain the public land forest management,” Saviello said. “This is especially true in light of the market changes due to the change in and closing of certain (paper) mill operations.”

Earlier Tuesday, Expera Specialty Solutions announced that it would close the Old Town pulp mill by the end of the year, laying off nearly 200 people. On Monday, Lincoln Paper and Tissue announced that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a move expected to result in the mill’s sale. Verso Paper announced in August that it plans to cut 300 jobs at its Jay mill.

DEMAND FOR TIMBER FALLS AS MILLS CLOSE

Those events changed the dynamics of Tuesday’s commission discussions.

“Obviously, with three mills going down in the last couple of weeks, you’re not going to be cutting as much (timber) because the market is not going to be there,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake.

Denico, who heads the Maine Forest Service as well as the Bureau of Parks and Lands, said he was “shocked” to hear Tuesday’s news about the Old Town mill. While Denico said the recent announcements may not have a major impact on demand for hardwood and spruce/fir harvested on Maine’s public lands, he acknowledged the short-term outlook for the forest products market looks grim.

“I think we are headed for a tough time, but I have also been there before in my time and I have seen prices come back,” Denico told fellow commission members. “But I think we are going to have a depression in our prices.”

During the legislative session that ended in July, lawmakers rejected a LePage administration bill that would have diverted at least $1 million in timber revenues from public lands to the proposed home heating program.

Rep. Craig Hickman, the Winthrop Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, said taking away even $1 million from the fund would put pressure on the department to aggressively harvest timber on public lands. Hickman later expressed particular concerns about siphoning off $1 million from the fund in perpetuity, given the turbulent market.

“That would make it very difficult for the bureau to be self-sufficient,” Hickman said of the diversion. “The numbers show us that is not sustainable.”’

Maine has roughly 600,000 acres of “public reserved lands,” which are distinct from the better-known state parks. The state manages 418,000 acres of the public lands for timber as well as for outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat, representing the multifaceted mission of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Since LePage took office in 2011, timber harvests on state-owned lands have increased by more than 34 percent, from 115,167 cords to 155,152 cords last year. Denico and other LePage administration officials have argued that some of Maine’s public timberlands are actually over-stocked with wood and that increasing the annual harvest to 180,000 would result in healthier forests while increasing revenue.

Commission members from across the spectrum – including those representing timber interests, outdoor recreation groups and conservation organizations – made clear Tuesday that they believe foresters, not state lawmakers, should decide the timber harvesting levels on public lands.

Meanwhile, five former commissioners of the Maine Department of Conservation took the unusual step of weighing in on the debate over use of timber revenues and extent of harvesting activities on public lands. The five former commissioners – Richard Barringer, Richard Anderson, C. Edwin Meadows, Ronald Lovaglio and Patrick McGowan – disagreed with the LePage administration’s policy stances on both questions.

“While worthy options may exist for use of surplus revenues, they must be made only after the utmost care and deliberation by the Legislature,” the former conservation commissioners wrote in a Sept. 24 letter. “We believe that any surplus revenues will be best and constitutionally used to finance needed capital and infrastructure improvements (only) to lands within the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, to advance outdoor recreation and job creation opportunities for Maine people, especially in Maine’s rural places.”

The commission plans to meet at least two more times before sending its recommendations to the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee by Dec. 5.