Public Lands Commission slams the door on Governor’s demands

sunsetThe legislature’s Public Lands Commission has slammed the door on Governor Paul LePage’s demand that revenue in the Public Lands Bureau be diverted to purchase wood stoves for poor Mainers and other purposes. At the Commission’s Tuesday meeting, not a single voice was raised to support the governor on this issue.

Commission Chair, Senator Tom Saviello, said that an advisory opinion of Maine’s Attorney General, Janet Mills, “takes off the table” the Governor’s demand. I reported on that advisory opinion in this column on Tuesday. LePage is refusing to allow Land for Maine’s Future bonds to be sold until the legislature allows him to divert Public Lands funds, so it now appears that the legislature will have to remove the Governor’s authority if the LMF bonds are ever to be sold and utilized to complete more than 2 dozen pending conservation projects.

The Commission’s Tuesday meeting focused, as have other Commission meetings, on forestry. State Forest Service Director Doug Denico, who has also been given authority over State Parks and Public Lands by the Governor, answered lots of questions in a very professional and nonjudgmental manner.  Doug was peppered with good questions from Commission members, a truly outstanding group. Dave Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, asked a lot of questions about road building and maintenance on public lands. He’d hardly gotten started when Doug said, “You’ve just opened a can of worms.” Well, that’s what SAM leaders are supposed to do!

I won’t even try to report on the detailed discussion of road and forest harvesting issues, but that took up most of the meeting. The Commission appeared to agree that the legislature ought not to be dictating forest harvesting decisions, and that may turn up in their final recommendations due in December after their final meeting, scheduled for December 1.

Surplus Funds

There was quite a bit of confusion at the Commission’s last meeting about how much of a surplus the Public Lands Bureau actually has. That was cleared up on Tuesday. As of June 30, 2015, the Bureau had a cash balance of $8 million. Revenue for this fiscal year, which began on July 1, is projected to be $7 million and the budget authorized expenditures of $8 million. After leaving $2.5 million in surplus, a figure that all Commission members agreed was essential, a total of $4.5 million will be left. The most interesting recommendations from the Commission will be how they think that $4.5 million should be spent.

Public lands mapI suggested, in the three minutes of remarks the Commission allowed members of the public towards the end of the meeting, that the Commission focus on wildlife habitat and recreational needs and management. Each of the public lands units has a management plan, developed with input from local, regional, and state organizations. But while those plans list a lot of needed projects, from better signage to road maintenance, none of those projects are prioritized. I suggested that before each planning process is completed, with the input of the groups that are participating, all of the projects be prioritized, so that when the Bureau does have surplus funds, it will be easier to decide how to spend that money. My idea was well received and will hopefully be included in the Commission’s final recommendations.

A lot of information was distributed at the meeting, including a briefing paper on issues involving accessibility accommodations for recreationists including compliance with the Americans for Disability Act, a lengthy memo including a history of some of the key issues from Lloyd Irland, former Forest Service Director, and a response from five former Conservation Department Commissioners, who together had submitted a letter to the Commission at its September meeting expressing concern about the overharvesting of public lands and offering a bunch of recommendations. The question concerned outdoor recreation and a job creation strategy and the answer from the Commissioners was very interesting. Here it is.

Outdoor Recreation

“In our letter to the Commission presented at its September 29 meeting we advocated that Maine develop an Outdoor Recreation and Job Creation Strategy, citing similar efforts underway in the states of New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. The Commission requested that we provide further details. As a point of department for your staff’s research, we offer the South Carolina agency’s official website, www.scprt.com, that describes South Carolina’s efforts in detail and references similar efforts in Virginia and Arizona. Below is an excerpt from the SCPRT’s webpage:

The South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT) is a cabinet agency assigned to operate and manage South Carolina’s 47 state parks, to market the state as a preferred vacation destination, and to provide assistance to communities for parks, recreation and tourism development and promotion. The agency is perhaps most widely recognized for its leadership role in promoting and supporting South Carolina’s number one industry – tourism.

SCPRT’s vision, to enhance the economic well-being and improve the quality of life of all South Carolinians, guides its operations and provides a benchmark for hundreds of employees to measure their day-to-day contributions. It also is the basis for South Carolina’s new Tourism Action Plan, a statement that projects a bright future if proper investments are made in tourism. Details about the agency’s activities can be found throughout this website.

“Maine already has strong elements in hand for moving forward on this concept,” wrote the five Commissioners, “with the recently completed economic impact survey on which the Commission was briefed, and the 2015 Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan prepared by the Bureau of Parks and Lands.”

Deer Yards

deer IslesboroWe were able to have a bit of discussion about deer yards at the Commission’s meeting, including my testimony that Maine has done a miserable job of protecting deer yards. Senator Saviello suggested that the state ought to be purchasing deer yards. Doug Denico cautioned against this, reporting that the timber in those deer yards would be valued at $2500 to $3000 per acre, making the purchase of those yards, “horribly expensive.”

I brought to their attention a devastating cut in a key deer yard in Highland Plantation, and a harvesting operation that distressed me on a very important river where brook trout and salmon spawned. I am currently studying the protective rules for harvesting near water bodies to see if the rules were followed on that logging operation. If they were, those rules are horribly inadequate.

One interesting suggestion from several people was that BPL ought to be focusing some of its money on the purchase of access to public lots. Apparently we can’t get there from here, at least on some of the public lots!

And then there was this thought-provoking comment from Gordon Mott, a forestry consultant and conservationist. “As a private landowner who provides the habitat that raises the deer and the place people come to hunt, I am dismayed that I can’t charge anyone to hunt on my land. The guide can charge people to hunt my land, but I can’t. You could cure the deer problem if you let private landowners profit from healthy deer populations. Today deer are a liability for us.”

Recommendations Coming

Here are the issues on which Commission members must offer recommendations at their last meeting on December 1:

  1. Proper use of the fund and its possible expansion to other uses.
  2. Sustainable harvest levels and how to best maintain them.
  3. How best to manage public lands and forests for recreation, wildlife habitat and public use while ensuring healthy working forest.
  4. How best to manage public lands to deal with possible pest and disease issues.
  5. Investments in public lands to increase access to public lands and spur rural economic growth.
  6. Impact of outdoor recreation on the State’s tourism economy and the role public lands play in that economy.
  7. Any other issues the commission feels necessary to protect and manage public lands and the funds derived from those public lands.

 

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. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.