March 18, 2010

Maine should cut a deal with Plum Creek

— Stepping through a break in the trees atop a high ridge on a Maine mountain can leave us breathless, and not just from the climb to get there. We are blessed in this state with landscapes that stir souls. Perhaps this is why we can't talk about development in and around our wilderness areas without emotion.

Over a decade of editorial board visits, I've had the pleasure of meeting dozens of people who find their souls forever entwined with the Maine wilderness. Earnestness does not begin to describe the commitment and dedication I see in the eyes of people representing groups such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon and the Nature Conservancy.

Those of us who do not work tirelessly to preserve Maine's wild places but nevertheless enjoy their beauty owe these folks a deep debt of gratitude. We also owe them a measure of understanding when their passion boils over to an uncompromising desire to save every inch of wilderness from development.

And, even when we pull the emotion out of the equation, we are still left with the very practical reasons why we should work collectively to conserve this state's natural beauty. People from away pay good money to experience what the Maine wilderness has to offer. From hunting and snowmobile riding to hiking and camping, there's money to be made from those who crave our landscape.

A HIGHER PURPOSE

Our wild lands also serve higher purposes than stirring our souls and filling our bank accounts. The trees pull carbon from the air, reducing the greenhouse gases that threaten to warm the planet. There are rare plants and animals that depend on habitats entrusted to our collective care. Whether future generations get to enjoy wild spaces and are given a fair shot at combating environmental disaster depends in part on what we, the people of Maine, do collectively to protect these wild places.

For reasons both sentimental and practical, then, there should be little debate about the importance of conserving our state's wilderness. And, by and large, Mainers agree on this.

But where we differ is over how to best go about the task and whether we should make compromises along the way.

This is what's really at stake in the debate over Plum Creek Timber Co.'s proposal for the area around Moosehead Lake. No one is suggesting that we open the North Woods to unlimited development. But the Plum Creek proposal forces us to decide if we're going to accommodate and channel the forces that threaten our wilderness, or fight them, acre by acre, in the hope that we can keep the development tide at bay.

I am in the camp that says we bottle up the economic pressures on our wilderness at great risk, not only to our economy but to the wilderness itself.

We lack the public resources to buy every acre worth preserving. The political reality is such that developers can't and won't be completely shut out through regulation.

What that means is that development is going to happen. The only questions are, where and on what scale.

If you think this is an open endorsement of what Plum Creek wants to do around Moosehead, you'd be wrong. My personal opinion is that what the company has sitting before the Land Use Regulation Commission is still too ambitious. But with its successive reworking of the plan, Plum Creek is getting warmer.

At some point, if the conservationists can set aside their emotions, there is a chance to channel the development pressure that Plum Creek represents into something that is acceptable. In the process, valuable lands can be preserved.

What's been lost in this debate is not the quid-pro-quo of the deal that's on the table but the conservation good that comes from allowing development to proceed, irrespective of what lands may be preserved as part of the deal.

Which is to say, there is economic pressure to develop the North Woods that won't be going away. Proponents of the current plan point out that Plum Creek can use existing rules to subdivide its lands and build hundreds of house lots and amenities without approval of a master plan.

This is true, but the benefits of providing a safety valve for development pressure extends beyond what Plum Creek might do. If Plum Creek were allowed to develop 975 house lots and two resorts as it wants, pressure is likely to be taken off other desirable areas of the North Woods.

By contrast, if the plan were simply banned, with Plum Creek being prevented from building anything, then the demand for second homes and resort amenities would seek another outlet.

DEAL COULD PRESERVE 430,000 ACRES

Plum Creek is prepared to donate and sell for conservation a total of 430,000 acres of forestland around Moosehead Lake. Some of that land could still be used for things like wind farms. Nearly all of it could be used to harvest timber. But, by and large, it would remain forested and open for recreation. The Nature Conservancy is a partner in this conservation effort. It would have to raise $35 million to complete the project.

But the project also depends on Plum Creek getting a Moosehead development deal from LURC that it can live with.

My sense is that the Plum Creek proposal overreaches with its plans for the areas around Long Pond and Lily Bay, and it may have to scale back further its plans for those locations to win over enough support to get its proposal through.

Hopefully, the LURC staff or consultants hired by LURC can sit with Plum Creek and hammer out something that comes closer to a reasonable balance. While doing so would not satisfy an emotional urge to protect every acre of the Maine wilderness, it will meet our obligation to be good stewards of the environment on behalf of future generations.

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