AUGUSTA — LePage administration proposals to log more timber on state-owned woodlots to help homeowners pay for energy efficiency upgrades received mixed reviews Tuesday from lawmakers, foresters and conservation groups.

Earlier this month, the LePage administration informed lawmakers that the Bureau of Parks and Lands plans to increase logging on state-owned public lands from 141,500 cords of wood per year to 180,000 cords annually during the next 20 years.

Officials offered various arguments for the 27 percent increase in logging on woodlots, including reducing the risk posed by another anticipated outbreak of the destructive spruce budworm.

But a key justification is to enable the administration to funnel money generated from the increase in logging into Efficiency Maine Trust programs that help Maine homeowners pay to switch to more efficient, less costly heating systems.

Currently, Efficiency Maine Trust, an independent agency, is funded through a surcharge on electricity rates and through revenues generated by sales of carbon dioxide emissions credits issued to power plants through the multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said the frigid winter illustrated the dire need for additional energy strategies as struggling households quickly exhausted the fuel assistance available through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

“Our state’s energy policy has for too long been just get by to get through the winter, wait for spring and hope that the federal government provides (LIHEAP) benefits,” Woodcock told members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

The question facing lawmakers, however, is whether to break long-standing tradition – and potentially legal obligations, according to critics – by diverting timber revenues reserved for managing Maine’s 400,000-plus acres of “public reserved lands” to other programs.

Woodcock and representatives from the forest products, natural gas and Maine wood pellet industries said the answer to that question is a definitive “yes.”

“Given the situation that we are in today, I believe a small transfer to help the most vulnerable populations provide basic heat is surely in the public benefit,” Woodcock said.

Critics, meanwhile, suggested that Gov. Paul LePage was choosing the wrong way to pay for much-needed energy upgrades – and setting a potentially dangerous precedent in the process.

Roger Merchant, a licensed Maine forester from Bangor, compared the bureau’s proposal to a “we’re broke, cut the woodlot” mentality that he has seen many times in rural Maine.

“Raiding the ‘forest bank’ is a known blueprint for forest degradation and, at the worst, unwarranted forest liquidation,” Merchant said. “Why weaken what is working and what took them 30 years to build?”

Maine has more than 600,000 acres of “public reserved lands,” more than 400,000 acres of which are managed for sustainable timber harvesting, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation and other uses. More remote and rugged than state parks – and often with no staffing – the lands range from lots a few dozen acres in size to large tracts popular with sportsmen, hikers and campers. Among the more popular sites are the 36,000-acre Bigelow Preserve Public Reserved Land in western Maine and 43,000-acre Nahmakanta Public Reserved Land southwest of Baxter State Park.

LePage’s proposal drew opposition from several organizations that often push for larger investments in energy efficiency, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“NRCM has been one of the most vocal advocates in Maine for effective and well-funded energy efficiency activities over the last decade. Our opposition to the increased harvesting and funding-diversion plan is just as strong as our support for the program to which this would add funding,” said the council’s Cathy Johnson.

Committee members expressed concerns about the LePage administration’s proposal to tap into timber revenues to pay for energy efficiency programs and to increase annual logging on public lands by 27 percent, even though lawmakers currently have no legislative say in harvesting rates.

In a draft of a letter to be sent to Will Harris, director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, the committee pressed the bureau for the scientific basis for increasing harvests from 141,500 cords of wood per year to 180,000 cords. They also questioned whether more aggressive logging is consistent with the bureau’s own management policies and could jeopardize the state’s qualification for sustainable forestry certification through the Forest Stewardship Council. “We are concerned about the increased (harvesting) beyond the current 141,500 cords per year and legislative proposal relating to the use of (bureau) revenue outside the purposes of supporting resource protection, wildlife and recreation programs within (the bureau),” the draft letter states.

The debate over using timber revenues to pay for energy efficiency comes at a time when some lawmakers are contemplating “raiding” the Efficiency Maine Trust program to cover a budget shortfall.

Responding to a question about a potential budget “raiding,” Efficiency Maine executive director Michael Stoddard said “it has never happened yet” but acknowledged the current firewall built into the program’s funding source isn’t ironclad.

“The Legislature made that rule and they can unmake that rule, so I cannot say that it is 100 percent protected,” Stoddard said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:[email protected]