A group that rallied Mainers to protect one of the state’s most majestic mountain ranges with a 1976 statewide ballot question says government officials are ignoring the law that protects the Bigelow Preserve.

Friends of Bigelow, the group that formed to protect the range from development and the over-harvesting of timber, said state forestry officials have approved dramatic increases in the amount of timber being cut from the preserve.

The move, according to Lance Tapley, a spokesman for the Friends of Bigelow, is in direct conflict with the voter-approved law that protects the mountain and its forests for public use.

Tapley said Monday that the widening of logging roads to facilitate the increased timber harvest is in conflict with state law requiring the public land reserve to be maintained in a primitive state.

The state’s longtime manager of the Bigelow Preserve, Steve Swatling, resigned in June 2015 because Gov. Paul LePage’s administration was ignoring sound forestry and allowing the preserve to be over-cut, Swatling said in a letter to the Friends of Bigelow released Sunday.

LePage has pushed lawmakers to increase the timber harvest on public forests as a means of increasing state revenues. In the past, LePage suggested the increased revenue could be used to help the poor and elderly offset their heating costs.

Revenue from the harvest of timber on public lands is directed to the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund, which funds the Bureau of Public Lands. Presumably, LePage would offset current General Fund revenues to the bureau to be replaced with increases from timber harvest revenues.

The state has about 600,000 acres with about 400,000 acres open to timber harvesting, under a prescribed management plan.

Some foresters and supporters of increasing the harvest levels on public land say doing so could be the best way to guard against forest insect infestations, such as spruce budworm, which destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in the 1980s.

In a phone interview Monday, Swatling, a licensed forester who managed the Bigelow Preserve for 25 years, said disagreements among himself, regional managers in the Maine Forest Service and its head forester, Doug Denico, over how much should be cut in Bigelow led to his resignation.

“State Forester Supervisor Doug Denico clearly stated to staff he would not entertain any challenges by staff to the authority and judgment of the regional managers,” Swatling wrote. “In 2015, the western regional manager required I break the public trust by insisting I harvest 10,000 cords of wood.”

He said the proposed harvest was in violation of the state’s own policy, so he offered an alternative plan that would have eventually brought the harvest levels to more than 10,000 cords a year by 2020.

According to Tapley and the Friends of Bigelow, the harvest in the preserve more than doubled, from 24,992 cords from 2006 to 2010, to 51,185 cords from 2011 to 2015. The group said the harvest figures are based on the state’s own reports. 

Under his proposal, Swatling suggested harvest levels of 6,000 cords for 2015 and 8,580 cords each year for the next four years, with a harvest of 10,498 cords in 2020 that would be continued into the future.

Denico was unavailable for comment Monday, but a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which includes the Forest Service, said he would be available Tuesday to discuss harvesting practices on the preserve and other public land.

State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, a trained forester, said he reviewed Swatling’s proposal, as did others on a special commission set up in 2015 to explore the possibility of increasing the harvest levels on state forests, and he couldn’t fully understand it.

“As foresters, we all have a particular area that we love and we would rather it not be cut,” Saviello said. “I can’t accuse Steve of this, but he makes accusations that it was over-cut, but maybe the stand was mature.”

Saviello said a variety of factors, including what’s going on with markets for different kinds of wood, may guide a harvest plan. 

Saviello also said timber harvests had to be done throughout a given stand in a prescribed way, and that a harvest plan is not only designed to guide the amount of wood cut but to create open space in the forest for new growth and to address other factors meant to manage a stand’s health so it can remain productive into the future.

Saviello said the 2015 commission set up to respond to LePage’s demands to increase timber harvesting on public lands ultimately determined forest management should be left to forest scientists, and even suggested the commission be left standing to make harvest-level recommendations and other forestry advice to the Legislature in the future.

But legislation that would have done that failed to gain traction in 2016, partly because of opposition from LePage and Denico, Saviello said.

Saviello confirmed that LePage’s plan to use revenue from the sale of timber harvesting on public land was likely not allowed under the state’s constitution, which directs the profits from timber sales to public education and toward the management of public land.

Swatling on Monday confirmed his resignation and said the harvest plan he was ordered to prescribe for the forest unit he managed, which includes the Bigelow Preserve, prompted his resignation.

He said he had a number of other issues with the way the current administration was pushing to increase timber harvesting on public land, saying it conflicted with good forest management practices and was not science-based.

“We, the department, had made a promise to the public that this is how we were going to manage the forest,” Swatling said. “That’s not how the forest is currently being managed, so there is a violation of that trust with the public. So I had to make a decision to either do what my boss was asking me to do or what we as an organization had promised the public, which is the landowner.”

Swatling said the choice was clear. “I chose to side with the promise we made to the public,” he said.

On Sunday, Friends of Bigelow, which began its campaign to protect the range with a hike and a flag planting in 1974, returned to the West Peak summit, the highest point of the range, to plant another flag.

In 1974, the group’s flag read “Save Bigelow.” On Sunday the flag that members raised in driving wind and rain read, “Save Bigelow Again,” according to Tapley, who participated in the hike.

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“We, the department, had made a promise to the public that this is how we were going to manage the forest. That’s not how the forest is currently being managed, so there is a violation of that trust with the public. So I had to make a decision to either do what my boss was asking me to do or what we as an organization had promised the public, which is the landowner.”

— Steve Swatling, forester and former Bigelow Preserve manager


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