We have a big stake in the work of the new Commission to Study the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund, organized by the Legislature. After all, we own those 600,000 acres of public lands. And it’s high time our voices were heard on how we want these lands to be managed.

Gov. Paul LePage wants to cut more of our trees and divert that money to causes outside of our lands. His inability to convince legislators to do this led to another tantrum and his refusal to sell the Land for Maine’s Future bonds, jeopardizing more than a dozen land conservation projects. Two weeks ago, the governor forbid the LMF Board and staff from spending any money on legal work on current projects. As one board member reported, “This would appear to shut the process down in terms of any due diligence required to complete applications currently in the pipeline.”

While the new Public Lands Commission will focus some of its time and energy on the subject of timber harvesting, it got an earful at its first meeting last week about the need to better manage fisheries and wildlife habitat and deal with a huge number of infrastructure improvements, primarily so we can find and enjoy our public lands.

Linda and I drove recently from Oquossoc to Mexico over the highlands, a beautiful drive, but, except for one very badly battered sign, we never would have known we own property up there. From signage to roads to campgrounds to water access to deer-wintering areas, millions of dollars of improvements are awaiting action and funding on our public lands.

Doug Denico, director of the Forest Service, who has also been given the assignment by the governor of directing the Bureau of Parks and Lands, gave an exceptionally detailed and informative presentation about the status of the forests on our public lands and his plans to increase harvests. Denico’s experience in and passion for the forests are unmatched.

But I did express one concern about his presentation. He announced that he’ll be building more roads to access more timber throughout our public lands. When log drives were ended on our rivers and the entire North Woods opened up with roads, it had a negative impact on fisheries and wildlife, particularly on native brook trout in remote ponds. We were decades late in acting to protect those native brookies. I told the commission that I hoped staff from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife would be consulted about any road-building plans.

I also believe we need to manage more of our public lands for old-growth forest. In June, I visited Big Reed Pond, which is surrounded by old-growth forest protected by The Nature Conservancy, and it is spectacular. Let’s not try to harvest every available tree on our public lands.

Growing up in Winthrop, Dad and I could hunt anywhere. I don’t recall every seeing a No Trespassing sign, so well into adulthood, I didn’t think we needed a lot of public land. Boy, has that changed.

Today, lots of land is posted, and one of my favorite places to hunt and fish is in the 6,000 acres of public land called the Kennebec Highlands, 10 minutes from my home. When I worked for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, we supported a successful initiative by Tom Morrison of the Bureau of Parks and Lands to open the undeveloped sections of state parks to hunting. We appreciated Morrison’s effort and needed that.

It was great to see Morrison, who retired last year as acting director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, and Will Harris, his predecessor, at the commission’s meeting. Both made very informative presentations. Harris noted that our public lands “are not the state’s woodlot.” Morrison reminded commission members that while the bureau “is in the best financial shape it’s ever been, it’s taken years and years and that bucket doesn’t quickly refill.” A good warning not to hastily move to divert BPL’s current surplus.

I chimed in, urging the commission to focus some of its time on the great needs I’ve seen throughout our public lands for infrastructure and other improvements. Morrison noted that most Mainers don’t even know where their public lands are located.

Focus on the recreational needs and uses by the public on our lands, I told commission members. And let’s make fisheries and wildlife management on our public lands the best in the state. It is far from that today. We can do better, and we must.

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.

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