AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage and officials at the state energy office announced plans Tuesday to increase logging on public lands and use the revenue to help Mainers replace inefficient home heating systems.

But environmentalists said the increase in the annual harvest of timber from state-owned land comes without scientific justification and should spur a wider public conversation about the proper use of public lands.

Nevertheless, the Bureau of Parks and Lands, which sets standards for annual log harvests on about 400,000 acres statewide, is planning to increase its annual harvest from 141,500 cords to 180,000 cords over two years. The higher logging rate would then be maintained for 20 years.

LePage said that in recent years, the state has been cutting less than the amount authorized under bureau regulations.

“My suggestion was to bring the annual cut to where the growth is. Let’s bring the cut there, save those revenues and start using some of the . . . increase in revenues to help Maine families convert their expensive heating systems to something that is more efficient for them,” LePage said during a press conference outside his office at the State House.

Last fiscal year, the bureau took in $4,658,025 from the sale of logs and other forest products, according to its most recent annual report. Under state law, that revenue must be returned to the bureau to pay for continued stewardship of the forests, although a bill before the Legislature, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would make some of revenue available to fund conversions to wood pellet boilers.

LePage’s proposal for a more aggressive harvesting schedule is being opposed by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s major environmental group. Cathy Johnson, a staff attorney at the council, said Lepage’s position isn’t based on scientific evaluations of what the state’s forests can support in annual logging.

Instead, she said, the administration is listening to the Maine Forest Service’s suggestions to cut more trees based on vague concerns about tree mortality, and the potential impact of an invasive insect, the spruce budworm, which can kill healthy trees.

Johnson said the forest service pressured the bureau to increase the harvest even though its has no legal authority to shape public lands policy. She said forest service staff originally recommended that many more trees be taken down each year.

Exceeding the sustainable harvest endangers wildlife habitat and reverses a long-held policy by the Bureau of Parks and Lands to grow high-quality, old trees, she said.

“This is frankly, unprecedented, for the Maine Forest Service to insert itself into the management of public land,” she said.

Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council, said many of the energy-saving methods the governor wants to support with increased logging are already available through Efficiency Maine and funded by the state’s omnibus energy bill passed in June 2013. The governor vetoed the bill but was overridden.

“This is a successful program that we got in place because of legislation passed last year that the governor vetoed,” Voorhees said.

Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303, or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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