Public Lands Director speaks with candor and courage on Governor’s timber harvest expansion

Public Lands BDN photo

 

Will Harris, one of the very few hold-overs from the Baldacci to the LePage Administration, spoke with remarkable candor and courage yesterday when questioned by legislators about the governor’s plan to harvest more timber on public lands and use the money for public heating assistance programs.

Public Lands Will HarrisHarris serves as the Director of Maine’s Parks and Public Lands, a gubernatorially appointed position. He could be fired without reason by the governor, making his remarks all the more astonishing. I haven’t checked this morning to see if Will is still on the job!

When I read Mario Moretti’s Bangor Daily News account this morning of the hearing yesterday on this issue, I was honestly amazed that anyone in this Administration dared to challenge the governor. Amazed, yes. But not surprised because Harris is hard-working, honest, and dedicated to his Bureau of Parks and Lands. There was no other way to answer the question, really.

While environmental groups have expressed concern about increased harvesting levels on our 600,000 acres of public lands, and this is certainly debatable, the unprecedented action of removing that money from BPL and using it for other purposes is the most alarming element of the governor’s plan.

As The Nature Conservancy’s Tom Abello outlined in his testimony against the bill, a total of $1 million would be transferred from the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund to a new Affordable Heating from Maine’s Forest’s Fund, and in subsequent years, up to $1,250,000 could be transferred. The Efficiency Maine Trust would be required to use the funding for measures that reduce residential heating costs.

BPL gets no General Fund public support, so it must finance its many important functions with fees and timber harvest sales.

Public lands mapAbello outlined BPL’s many responsibilities: “BPL is responsible for 326 campsites, 150 miles of hiking trails, 35 boat launch areas, and 131 miles of public access road on these lands. The timber harvest funds support such projects as road maintenance, culvert installations, mapping and brochure publication, seeding and soil conservation activities, invasive species control, improving boat launches and camping areas, wildlife inventory and survey work and wildlife habitat and deeryard management.”

I might also suggest that BPL squirrel away some of their funds to protect those deer yards from the spruce budworm epidemic that is headed our way.

A bipartisan majority of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee rejected the governor’s bill on Wednesday. Will Harris… told the committee that the bureau had been operating in “reduced budget mode,” reported Moretti who also wrote that, when asked whether he felt the bureau could afford to see any extra revenue diverted to external purposes, Harris was diplomatic.

“We’re … mindful that we’re working in an administration that has policy objectives,” Harris said. “But if this were just me, and what I’d like to do, there are a bunch of things we’d like to do,” such as road maintenance and work to increase access to public lands.

Diplomatic – yes. Courageous – for sure.

While all of the committee’s Democrats opposed the governor’s plan, not at all surprising, it was the opposition of two Republican Representatives, Russell Black and Donald Marean, that made me proud to be a Republican.

According to Moretti, Black said he didn’t want to set a precedent of diverting revenue from the public land trust, which normally is invested directly back into the Bureau of Parks and Lands, for other purposes.

“The concept of the bill is a good one, but [the Bureau of Parks and Lands] has been doing a good job with management of the forests and I don’t want to set a precedent,” he said. “I felt very uncomfortable taking that money away from the bureau.”

Actually, Russ, the concept is not a good one, and thanks for opposing this!

 

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.