January 8, 2014

J.D. Irving Ltd., Maine’s largest landowner with 1.25 million acres of forestland, has been exempted from some clear-cutting regulations and harvesting standards of the Forest Practices Act after signing a five-year agreement with State forestry officials.

The agreement was made on May 2012, but only became public this month after Maine Forest Service submitted a report to state lawmakers on Outcome Based Forestry, an experimental tree harvesting program.

J.D. Irving’s deal allows the company to clear-cut 250 individual acres without state approval.

With major landowners agreements being mostly confidential and regulations been overseen by a panel appointed by Gov. Paul LePage, environmental groups say 10 million acres of certified forestland could be endangered.

State officials counter that the panel of experts will review the scientific rationale for each harvest and the aesthetic impact of each cut beforehand.

The Baldacci Administration put in sustainable harvesting regulations and best practices during Gov. John Balacci’s tenure.

According to a report submitted to the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee on Nov. 13, Doug Denico, director of the Maine Forest Service, wrote that J.D. Irving’s harvest sites underwent “intensive” field inspections.

The program aims to improve forest management practices, which have been in decline since the Forest Practices Act in 1989, according to Robert Wagner, a member of the advisory panel and director of the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources and Center for Research on Sustainable Forests.

The advisory panel is comprised of 6 members, 4 of which are or were involved with the forest products trade group.

Irving will benefit financially from this program as it was initially designed to operate on a smaller scale and there is little accountability when the panel is full of members from the forest products industry, said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“There’s no accountability for their decision making like there is for state employees to uphold the laws of the state,” Didisheim said. “You’re pushing off into this murky area of a voluntary program and volunteers performing what should be a role of the Maine Forest Service.”

The agreement with J.D. Irving and loosened regulations were a “significant change in state policy” that should be reviewed by the public, wrote Bill Patterson, a member of the Nature Conservancy, who left the advisory panel in August.

Initially the program was limited to “experimental” parcels with a limit of 100,000 acres per a singe harvest and a statewide limit of six areas not exceeding 200,000.

J.D. Irving did not become interested in the program till the acreage cap was removed in 2007, but was unable to strike a deal until 2012.