Fresh from the Woods

North Maine woods

Maine seeks $25 million for conservation

By Joe Rankin

Maine’s north woods covers some 12 million acres, a near contiguous swath that qualifies as the largest unbroken tract of forest east of the Mississippi.

While that forest has provided jobs and recreational opportunities for generations, these days it is under increasing threat from everything from shifting ownership patterns to development pressure to global competition.

Now a statewide group — Keeping Maine’s Forests — is proposing an innovative federal-state partnership to keep the forest undeveloped, help landowners protect its ecological and recreational values, and maintain the flow of pulp and timber that contribute millions every year to the state’s economy.

The group is asking for $25 million in new federal funding for land stewardship efforts, including potential demonstration projects in downeast Maine and the western mountains.

And it is asking President Barack Obama’s top officials to be more flexible in administering existing federal programs to free up additional money that could bolster the state’s wood-based economy and ensure the health of its rural communities.

The request was sent to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in late August. Backers hope the money will be available under the Obama administration’s new America’s Great Outdoors Initiative.

You can view the forest stewardship and the economic recommendations portions of the report by clicking here.

“This is an integrated effort to try and protect both the environmental contributions of the forest and the important contributions the forests make to Maine. To protect their special features while also maintaining them as an actively managed forest, which is the backbone of our rural economies,” said Alec Giffen, the director of the Maine Forest Service, who worked on both aspects of the proposal.

The proposal is the result of nine months of work by two committees, and builds on the Keeping Maine’s Forests report issued last year.

Both committees were made up of competing interests — environmental organizations, landowners, recreational groups, representatives of the paper and lumber industries, loggers, tourism operators, economic development leaders, and members of the state’s native American communities, among others.

As you might expect from such a diverse group, discussions were sometimes difficult, said John Williams, the president of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association.

But Williams and other participants say the final proposal shows how dedicated the various groups were to creating a plan that would work for Maine.

“It’s been a good process. It’s been slow, but that’s the nature of stakeholder groups. It’s been somewhat contentious. But everybody worked well together,” he said.

Karen Woodsum, the director of the Sierra Club’s Maine Woods Campaign, said the club, which has fought many battles over the Maine woods covering more than a decade, concluded that a new, more collaborative effort was called for and decided to join the Keeping Maine’s Forests effort.

The result, she said, is perhaps the “last, best chance” to put in place a model that will save the Maine woods from powerful and constantly shifting global forces that threaten to tear it apart.

Participants in the process say the proposal reflects a balance.

Said Williams: “We wanted to make sure that we were preserving the working forest and all the jobs it supports as well as the ecological and recreational values. The report does a good job of recommending steps that will do that.”

North Maine woods  (Photo by Mary Rankin)

The proposal calls for:

  • Creating at least one demonstration project, either downeast or in the western Maine mountains and lakes region, with willing landowners as participants.
  • Acquiring unique and important lands and purchasing development rights to others from willing landowners.
  • Developing a plan to pay forestland owners for the non-timber values their properties provide, such as managing for wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and recreation.
  • Making it easier for forestland owners to access some existing federal programs.

If federal funding is forthcoming for a pilot project, the report says that the new federal-state collaboration could be expanded in the future to cover even bigger projects and serve as a nationwide model, particularly on privately-owned forestlands in the eastern U.S.

It’s far too early to tell, backers say, what the Maine proposal’s chances of success are.

Last April President Obama created the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to promote community-level efforts to conserve outdoor spaces. As of now no funds have been allocated for it.

Many other states and organizations are submitting their own proposals in an attempt to get a share of any money that is eventually appropriated.

But those involved in the Maine initiative also say that the state could benefit because Salazar asked Keeping Maine’s Forests backers to come up with a vision for the Maine woods and Vilsack requested a written plan — and because Maine’s huge forest offers prime ground to experiment with new conservation strategies.

Panelists from Maine talk about the state’s conservation needs during a presentation to federal officials gathering input for President Barack Obama’s Great Outdoors Initiative on Sept. 2. (Photo – Joe Rankin)

On Sept. 2 top federal officials held a “listening session” to get input for the Great Outdoors Initiative and a dozen Keeping Maine’s Forests participants were among the nearly 250 people attending.

They, and others, hammered away at several main themes: that Maine’s privately owned forest is as important as any government-owned land in the Western U.S.; that any new conservation model needs be applied over large areas, not tiny parcels; that federal money is crucial and any federal financial commitment should be long-term; that landowners should be compensated for non-timber values their lands provide and that Maine’s history of good forest stewardship can be the foundation for the future.

“We felt good about the message that was delivered and the reception it received,” Sherry Huber of the Maine Tree Foundation said after the session.

She said committee members plan to keep in contact with the federal officials over the next couple of months as the America’s Great Outdoors report is written, and could hear within weeks on some programs.

Spencer R. Meyer, the associate scientist for forest stewardship at the University of Maine’s Center for Research on Sustainable Forests, said he is optimistic.

“Keeping Maine’s Forests’ efforts to educate the public about the real value of our forests to Maine people can only gain from federal involvement, as long as the emphasis is on developing and funding incentive mechanisms for Maine people to keep doing what they’ve been doing,” he said.

The KMF proposal notes that, in Maine’s case, the $25 million in money would be an investment. To ensure that a working forest, with its rivers and ponds, wildlife, vibrant fisheries, wood resources and people with a long-term relationship to their land, is kept intact, and to head off problems before they become so severe that a hideously expensive effort is needed to restore them.

The forest stewardship prong of the report seeks $25 million in new money — above and beyond what Maine is now getting — from the federal government. The sum would be matched by state and private contributions.

The pilot projects call for using some venerable tools, including outright purchase of key ecological parcels and lower cost conservation easements that are used to protect land by purchasing development rights while allowing tree harvesting and recreation.

But it also proposes a new idea: to financially compensate forestland owners for so-called ecosystem services — managing for wildlife, protecting water resources, managing the forest as a carbon sink, working to make the forest more resilient in the face of climate change and maintaining biodiversity.

That type of conservation payment has been available to farmers for years but not forestland owners. The Manomet Center for Conservation Science has expressed interest in developing such a compensation plan, the proposal said.

Also proposed: compensating forestland owners for allowing the public to use their properties for recreation.

“In most other states, large forest landowners profit from the recreational use of their lands,” the proposal said. “In Maine, landowners typically bear the cost of recreational use. This issue needs to be addressed. If the important tradition of public recreational access to Maine’s forest lands is to continue, new mechanisms will be needed to reward landowners who make their lands available for public recreation.”

Giffen said the time has come for such compensation: “If we’re really serious about maintaining these forest values — access for the public, trail systems for all purposes, wildlife populations and habitats — then let’s figure out how to make that in the best interests of forest landowners.”

The report stipulates that only willing landowners would be recruited to participate in the demonstration projects or any of the various programs.

The potential demonstration projects were selected based partly on the fact that landowners in those areas have already expressed an interest. One could cover several hundred thousand acres in the downeast region west of Moosehead National Wildlife Refuge, the other is across the state in the high peaks area between Rangeley and Carrabassett Valley.

The proposal emphasizes that these are still very much preliminary.

But if those are successful, the same tools could be transferred to truly “landscape scale” projects, ranging from 925,000 to 2.6 million acres in four other areas, the Allagash-St. John Valley, the far western Maine mountains, the Moosehead-Katahdin region and downeast, the proposal notes.

The economic recommendations are designed to buttress Maine’s forest-based economy focus on getting the federal government to be more flexible and open programs to forestland owners that until now have been more limited.

They include:

  • More money for Maine wardens to enforce recreation laws and educate users of private land.
  • Additional funds for the WoodsWise program, which gives family landowners access to a district forester.
  • Giving paper mills access to federal energy efficiency grants.
  • Increasing funds for workforce training and business assistance for rural businesses.
  • Giving Maine more money to expand high-speed internet in rural areas.

“We’re saying make the forest based economy a priority, across your agencies, within your agencies and programs and look at some of these programs that might have a goal of revitalizing rural communities, but aren’t positioned well enough to do that. When possible we really tried not to fall back on more money, more money, more money.” said State Economist Michael LeVert, the chairman of the 20-plus member subcommittee that looked specifically at economic issues.

Simply opening some federal programs a little wider could help Maine’s rural economies and its forestland owners.

LeVert noted, for instance, that Maine gets $8 million a year in federal assistance for sportfish restoration, but can’t use that money for enforcing recreation laws. Allowing the state to use 5 percent of that amount for the Warden Service would be a plus.

Also, the federal government has money available for building trails, but only on federal land, of which Maine doesn’t have a lot. Simply extending eligibility to federally-funded lands, such as the millions of acres of Maine landscape conserved through the Forest Legacy Program, would be a boon as well.

The Keeping Maine’s Forests steering committee says that a plan to implement the basics of the new federal-state partnership could be developed within six months. During that same period landowners and conservation groups could work out details of the pilot projects and land managers and scientists could develop the framework for a new forest stewardship model.

The pilot phase is expected to last three years. After that, the panel will evaluate its performance and decide how it might be changed and whether it should be expanded.

“The time to act is now,” the proposal says. “It would be imprudent to wait—once landscape integrity is lost it is prohibitively expensive to restore. We need to heed lessons learned the hard way as in places like the Everglades where massive amounts of money are being spent attempting to restore a broken ecosystem.”

Fresh from the Woods is produced by Forests for Maine’s Future, a collaboration of the University of Maine, Maine TREE Foundation, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine and the Maine Forest Service.

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