Woods in Maine, photo by Ramona du HouxOp-Ed
Gov. Paul LePage threatens to increase logging on Maine’s Public Reserved Lands beyond sustainable levels and divert the revenues to unrelated purposes. But his plans run contrary to the origins, unique characteristics and purpose of these Lands.
Maine has about 600,000 acres of Public Reserved Lands, comprising 30 parcels across the North Woods and Down East regions. Many people have hiked, camped, birded, fished or hunted on them, including at the Bigelow Preserve, Donnell Pond, Little Moose and Deboullie units. They differ from other Maine-owned places, such as state parks, wildlife management areas, lands purchased with funding from the Land for Maine’s Future Program, and boat launches.
The Public Reserved Lands system as we know it today was created in the 1970s and 1980s after enterprising Portland Press Herald reporter Bob Cummings unearthed the fact that Maine people owned “reserved public lots,” about 1,000-1,280 acres in every unorganized township. The lots were reserved to the people when Maine was separated from Massachusetts in 1820. Many lots were not actually located on the ground; they were simply a percentage of a township’s entire land base. Over the years the lots, particularly the un-located ones, had become “lost“ and were simply incorporated into the rest of the township. The private owners of the townships — mostly large paper companies — managed the public lots as if they owned them.
When the lots were rediscovered in the 1970s, a complicated trading process began. The state focused on consolidating the scattered parcels into larger units that had multiple public values, including wildlife habitat, scenic areas and recreation sites, as well as timber. The result is the spectacular system of Public Reserved Lands of today.
A unique characteristic is that the lands are subject to a “public trust,” which limits how they can be used. While the state of Maine has absolute power over its other ownerships, it does not have full authority over the Reserved Lands. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court determined that the trust constrains their uses, and any income derived from timber harvesting or other management is likewise subject to the public trust and specific uses.
Management of the Public Reserved Lands is funded entirely by money generated from the lands themselves, primarily from timber harvesting. The revenues pay for all roads, trails, campsites, picnic tables, other recreational infrastructure, wildlife habitat and ecological protection activities, and timber management and harvesting activities. No taxpayer funds are used. The total-self-funding mechanism is unique to our Public Reserved Lands.
The state parks, by contrast, are funded by taxpayers through the General Fund. Management of lands acquired with Land For Maine’s Future funds — places managed by entities such as the Bureau of Parks and Lands, local land trusts, or the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife — may be funded through endowments, harvesting revenues or taxpayer funds.
For 40 years, the Bureau of Parks and Lands (formerly the Bureau of Public Lands) has harvested sustainably on the Public Reserved Lands, managing them in exemplary fashion, improving timber quality and quantity. Today, the lands include some of the best, largest and oldest trees in the state. Big, old trees are not merely economic assets, but they also provide some of the finest habitat in Maine (outside of Baxter State Park) for plant, bird and mammal species that thrive in such environments.
Traditionally, BPL foresters have established harvest levels on Reserved Lands after a timber inventory. The inventory was updated in 2012 by an independent consultant and forms the basis for the current sustainable cut level. Unfortunately, the LePage administration is pushing to log significantly above the scientifically determined levels and wants to divert funds to unrelated purposes — heating the homes of low-income families. But because of the public trust, no matter how worthy the proposal for an alternative use of those funds, the harvest revenues from Reserved Lands may not be diverted elsewhere.
The administration should seek heating monies — a good cause — from sources unencumbered by legal protections that prevent him from doing so. Indeed the public trust doctrine was set up to prevent such unrelated diversions.
Equally important, overcutting would degrade the important wildlife habitat and recreational values. Our Public Reserved Lands are a special part of the legacy our forebears gave us two centuries ago. Likewise, we are obliged to pass them unimpaired to generations 200 years down the line. That is what public trust means.
Catherine B. Johnson is the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s North Woods project director and senior staff attorney.