Maine Forest Service image of healthy forests. Maine Forest Service

Hoping to find more common ground dealing with the state’s immense woods, lawmakers are eyeing the creation of a new Maine Forest Advisory Board to offer insight and advice to policymakers.

The proposed 18-member panel, hailing from a variety of backgrounds, “will help foster conversation and compromise, where possible” on a range of contentious issues that crop up regularly about how best to use and care for the state’s forests, Sen. Richard Bennett, an Oxford Republican, told colleagues this week.

The bill before the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry drew mostly favorable comments at a public hearing this week, but not everyone is on board with the idea. Some argued there are better approaches to take.

Patty Cormier, director of the Maine Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, told the committee her department shares the goal of the bill’s sponsors to have forest practices “be transparent, informed by experts and conforming to state-of-the-art procedures.”

“We do not believe, however, that the formation of a new board that largely duplicates existing and ongoing functions is the best way to achieve these goals,” Cormier said.

Maine’s forests, which are at the root of an $8.5 billion forest products industry in the state, cover about 17.5 million acres, or about 90% of the entire state. They support everything from logging to recreation and are responsible for tens of thousands of jobs.

Senate President Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat, said as time passes, Mainers “face an increasingly complex mixture of problems in our forest,” issues as diverse as climate change, wildlife management and herbicide use.

Senate President Troy Jackson testifies this week in favor of a bill to create a Maine Forest Advisory Board. Screenshot from video

The bill, which he supports, aims to have a board that can examine all of the complex, controversial issues from many vantage points, he said, and to report the “conditions and trends in the state’s forests” by January.

“Mainers deserve to know that our forests are managed in a thoughtful and comprehensive way,” Jackson said, “one that respects the livelihoods of people working in the woods, protects our natural habitat and public health, and ensures that future generations can enjoy the beauty that our forests bring to everyday life.”

Caleb and Jim Gerritsen, who have a family farm in Bridgewater, said half their property is a woodlot they harvest for their own use and for commercial sale.

They told lawmakers that it is apparent to them that the Maine Forest Service “suffers from the scourges of insular thinking and revolving doors,” too often substituting “the interests of large and powerful industrial landowners for the public interest they are entrusted to protect.”

A well-structured new board, they said, “would reestablish a balance of statewide interests and help to make sure that important perspectives of Maine citizens, small woodlot owners and such concerns as the environment and wildlife receive their proper attention.”

But Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, said his group does not favor the structure eyed in the bill. What it would like to see instead, he said, is an organization with the executive branch “whose sole mission is to work on behalf of the forest products economy,” probably within the Department of Economic and Community Development.

Doran said the new organization he envisions would “develop recommendations to the governor, state agencies and the Legislature with respect to forest resource policies and practices that result in the sustainable management, use, and protection of the state’s forest resources in furtherance of the Maine economy.”

Melanie Strum of the Natural Resources Council of Maine testifies in support of a proposal to create a new forest advisory panel.

Melanie Sturm, the forests and wildlife director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said more than a dozen states have forest advisory boards, including New Hampshire and Connecticut. The panels, Sturm said, “have served an important role in helping depoliticize complex issues regarding the stewardship of public and private forestlands.”

Jeff Reardon, Maine Brook Trout project director for Trout Unlimited, testified in favor of the measure as well, pointing out that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Department of Marine Resources and other state bureaucracies have similar advisory panels that help them do their work.

“There is no equivalent for the Maine Forest Service,” Reardon said, “and it shows.”

He told lawmakers about a wide-ranging and long-term effort to solicit public opinion and advice on a fisheries plan that ultimately gathered input from thousands of people after holding public meetings, creating a website and hearing from many interested parties.

In contrast, a draft forest action plan was issued Dec. 2, 2020, with comments due by Dec. 16, 2020, with far less input, Reardon said.

Cormier told the panel the department does engage with a wide range of people. She said the existing system is working well.

But Eliza Townsend, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine conservation policy director, said the proposed advisory panel would be helpful.

The Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry holds an online public hearing about the proposed Maine Forest Advisory Panel this week. Steve Collins/Sun Journal screenshot

“Given the forest’s importance, engaging a wide range of perspectives in evaluating its condition, sharing information and planning for its future makes sense,” Townsend said. “It also has the potential to reduce the intense policy struggles over the forest’s current condition and its future that so often spill over into the legislative arena.”

“Convening an advisory board made up of landowners and biologists, land managers and ecologists, loggers and an indigenous representative would ensure a very different discussion, one more comprehensive in its scope,” Townsend said. “Looking at our forest comprehensively is what is called for as we look to combat climate change, ensure ongoing biodiversity, and support a robust forest products industry.”

Tom Doak, executive director of the Maine Woodland Owners, had a different take.

Doak told legislators the proposed panel would duplicate existing efforts, add confusion and inevitably take away resources from the Maine Forest Service “at a time when, frankly, they are already inadequately funded.”

He said that instead of creating a new, large and permanent group, it would be better to address forest issues “through small, temporary groups” that could focus on specific questions, such as the Task Force on Creation of a Forest Carbon Program, a 15-person panel he’s serving on this year. It is slated to finish its report by Sept. 1.

For state Sen. Craig Hickman, a Winthrop Democrat, the proposal offered by Bennett and three other legislators, “strikes me as a common-sense approach to solving sometimes contentious issues.”

“We can do that by bringing together ecologists and loggers, land conservationists and commercial foresters, wildlife biologists and indigenous people with traditional knowledge,” Hickman said.

“We can charge them with assessing the full picture of conditions and trends in the forest, and with contributing their expertise and perspectives to the development of policy that works for all Mainers, for the forest and for the wildlife that depends on it,” Hickman said.

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