Most Mainers agree that the state’s 10 million acres of northern forest should remain intact, sheltering our wildlife, feeding our economy, feeding our soul. The owners of those lands share these goals.
Mainers, however, are sharply divided on every other forest issue, from harvesting practices to development to recreational access. And that is why — even though we agree on the biggest issue of them all — a major battle is unfolding at the Legislature over the future of the Land Use Regulation Commission — the planning and governing body for the state’s unorganized territories including the northern forest.
Just minutes after Bill Beardsley, commissioner of the Department of Conservation and chairman of a LURC study group, presented that group’s excellent recommendations, the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee got into an ugly partisan fight about the issues.
Ironically, every committee member and most of the lobbyists and observers in the room agree that the study group did a superb job. I was shocked at how quickly that agreement turned into disagreement.
The study group recommended that LURC retain its planning authority, but work more closely with landowners, local residents, counties and regional planning and economic professionals. The Department of Environmental Protection would govern all large projects and the Forest Service would handle forest management permitting.
Almost everyone agrees on all of this, demonstrating how far we’ve come since last year’s knock-down-drag-out at the Legislature over the governor’s proposal to abolish LURC and turn all of its duties over to the counties.
There is division on only two recommendations, one minor, one major. The minor issue would have county commissioners appoint LURC’s board with no oversight or approval process. That will be changed, requiring the nominees to go through the usual state confirmation process.
The major issue involves a recommendation that counties be able to opt out of the new system by taking on LURC’s duties. This is where it’s gotten ugly.
Offering counties a chance, in this legislation, to opt out of LURC undermines the new process, sending a signal, with a wink and a nod, that we’re not serious about it; telling counties, hey, if you don’t like it, you can opt out.
I’m not aware of ever being offered the opportunity, when a new hunting or fishing law was enacted, of opting out if I didn’t like it! This is an unusual approach for the Legislature to take, for sure.
Beardsley, even as he was reporting this opt-out recommendation, acknowledged that, “I believe our state land use planning team can and will effectively implement these recommendations so professionally that no county will have an aspirational or financial incentive to shift its planning oversight.”
So why tempt them? Let’s prove Beardsley right, before we hint that he may be wrong.
Within the opt-out debate, I’ve found a great deal of agreement, including from the private landowners who are driving this bus.
We want regulatory uniformity across the northern forest. We don’t want different approaches and regulations from county to county.
We don’t want taxes to rise. They could, in a number of ways, if counties take over LURC’s responsibility for administering state laws.
We want less government, not more. We want more efficient government, not bloated bureaucracies — and one agency taking care of this is better than six or eight counties with new planning departments.
If the new system has problems, we want the Legislature to be in position to fix those problems.
And let me add one more of my own. I’ve been a county commissioner. You don’t want to put county commissioners in charge of the northern forest.
Most importantly, we want a plan that looks at the entire northern forest and directs development to the appropriate places. Right now that means to places adjacent to existing development, to avoid fragmenting this very valuable forest.
The big landowners want this as much as we do. Years ago, the Pingree family offered a far-sighted conservation easement on its lands that guaranteed the integrity of their forests and directed development to appropriate places.
Covering 750,000 acres of Maine forestland, it was the biggest easement in the country at that time. And it’s a good example of our agreement about what we want for and from the northern forest.
Shame on legislators if they can’t recognize the importance of our intact northern forest, enact the many recommendations on which all agree, and get rid of the opt-out provision. If they fail us on this important issue, perhaps they should opt out of the Legislature!
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.