Help Save Our Forests

Open Letter to the Voters of Maine

 Press release

   An Act Regarding Forest Practices

  A Call to Action

 article "Forest Practices Citizen's Initiative" from the Legislative Bulletin

This article is reprinted from
Legislative Bulletin
Vol.XXII No. 11 March 17, 2000
a publication of the Maine Municipal Association


Forest Practices Citizens' Initiative

A bill that comes to the Legislature as a result of a citizen's petition, LD 2594, An Act Regarding Forest Practices, was given its public hearing Monday this week before the Legislature's Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

LD 2594 would require landowners to obtain a permit form the Maine Forest Service before initiating a forestry "clear cut" as that term is defined in law. The criteria for obtaining the permit is a finding that the clear cut is silviculturally justified, will not result in undue ecological damage, and there are no reasonable alternatives.

The initiative would also establish that timber harvesting activities on land enrolled under the Tree Growth tax law would have to meet a "sustainability" performance standard; that is, the volume of timber harvested over rolling 10-year periods would have to parallel average timber growth rates over those periods as those average growth rates would be established for each species.

Both these requirements would be developed into rules by a 9-member panel appointed by the Governor and made up of the Director of the Maine Forest Service, the Director of Baxter Park's scientific management unit, an independent logger, a professional forester, and five forestry scientists.

The public hearing

Several hundred people attended the public hearing, with perhaps 95% of the attendees opposed to the proposal. Many of the opponents were wearing "Enough is Enough" stickers handed out by the paper company and wood products industry trade associations. The stickers were worn apparently in complaint of having to deal with another referendum vote on forestry practices just four years after the two successive but inconclusive votes on the subject of clear cutting- the citizens' initiative that would ban the practice of clearcutting in the unorganized territories and the "Forestry Compact" measure fashioned by Governor King and designed to compete with the ban clearcutting proposal.


A half-dozen proponents of the measure, including former State Representative Mariah Holt of Bath, Bob Cummings of Phippsburg, small woodlot owner David Hall of West Bath, and Jonathan Carter, the director of the Forest Ecology Network, testified that LD 2594 was a moderate and reasonable approach to the problem of over harvesting Maine's timber assets, particularly on some of the largest timber tracts in the state. The proponents believe that U.S. Forest Service surveys document that overharvesting is occurring in Maine in some locations - the rate of 35% overharvesting was often mentioned - and that long-term overharvesting has contributed and will continue to contribute to a decline of the state's timber assets and the industries and jobs that are dependent on those assets.


As to the sustainable harvesting proposal, the proponents said that a connection between the Tree Growth tax break and a performance standard linking timber volume removal to volume of timber growth would give some accountability to the required land-owner forestry management plans that must be obtained (except on farmland forest parcels) in order to enroll in the Tree Growth taxation program. Proponents also argued that U.S. Forest Service studies show that most small woodlot owners do not typically engage in the practice of overharvesting and would therefore not be affected by the standards, and that LD 2594 allows for the practice of bankrolling a parcel's harvest limits over extended periods of time.


The opponents to the proposal numbered in the dozens, including the Department of Conservation's Maine Forest Service, the paper companies located in Maine, the Maine Forest Products council, sawmill owners and wood product manufacturers, the Sportsmans' Alliance of Maine, the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine, etc.

The Director of the Maine Forest Service, Tom Doak, said that LD 2594 was more complicated that it appeared and that if it were enacted today it would create a 47% reduction in the availability of wood, with a concomitant increase, obviously, in its price. Doak said that there are nearly 11,000 parcels and over 11 million acres of land currently enrolled in the Tree Growth program in both the unorganized territories and all but 12 of the state's 493 municipalities. If the bill were to pass, Doak said that all towns would be directly affected by the necessarily negative impact on local economies and the increase in the level of development "sprawl" as landowners removed their land from the program to escape the harvesting limitation. The Director said that LD 2594 was not science-based, it didn't recognize how forests actually grow, and failed to recognize the increased oversight of clearcutting practices that have been put into place in recent years through independent, third-party industry audits that have been conducted on a voluntary basis on some of the major forest holdings in the state.

Industry representatives, trade association lobbyists, and other opponents argued that great strides have been made in recent years improving the accountability of forest practices, such as the establishment of sustainability and water quality benchmarks under an "outcome-based" approach. Citizen referenda, the opponents complained, create uncertainty and depress or stall economic activity.

In addition, the claim was made that the measure's sustainable harvesting standard is flawed for, among other reasons, its counterproductive result of limiting the harvesting of older-growth species. According to this testimony, older growth species should often be harvested healthy rates to allow for new growth, but under the cut-at-the-rate-of-growth model, those species would have to be conservatively harvested because older growth trees grow more slowly and would, therefore, have to be harvested more slowly.

Neither for nor against

The state's major environmental organizations, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine Audubon Society, testified "neither for nor against" LD 2594 with presentations that essentially affirmed the proposition that there were problems in Maine's woods, without knowing if LD 2594 was the solution.

MMA's position

MMA testified in support of LD 2594, although its Legislative Policy Committee would like to have added two members to the oversight panel created by the measure, a representative from the paper industry and a small woodlot owner.

The municipal focus on the initiative is the establishment of a standard of accountability in the Tree Growth tax program that will serve to justify to the common taxpayer, who pays taxes on full value, why taxpayers enrolled in the Tree Growth program pay a tax on their property at rates that run from an average per-acre rate for hardwood of $94 to an average of $195 per acre for softwood timber stands.

Maine law has declared for decades that the purpose of the Tree Growth tax law is to "tax all forest lands according to their productivity and thereby to encourage their operation on a sustained yield basis." Under that governing purpose, the current standard for enrollment of land in the Tree Growth program is that the parcel be at least 10 acres in size, will not be developed with houses or structures, and a statement is submitted to the town that a forest management plan has been prepared for the parcel either by a licensed professional forester (LPF) or at least under an LPF's signature. No one, other than the landowner, has a right to see the plan and there are apparently no limitations as the intensity of the wood harvest that may be authorized by the confidential plans, at least within whatever bounds of timber harvesting may otherwise be allowed by law. Compliance with the plan comes in the form of a written statement submitted every 10 years by the landowner's LPF that the management plan, whatever it might say, is being complied with.

As designed, the Tree Growth tax program is an example of a non-performance based system, compared with the Open Space tax program which presents a positive example of a performance-based tax break. Simple enrollment in the Open Space program implies a willingness not to build structures on a parcel and land and yields a 20% reduction in assessed value. Place a deed restriction on the property to permanently protect it from development, and the reduction goes to 50%. Agree to allow the land to be forever wild, the reduction in assessed value jumps to 70%. Allow for public access on the open land, and a 95% reduction in assessed value is obtained.

From the municipal point of view, the fabric of the property tax code that provides certain property owners reductions from full-value tax obligations is less a tightly-woven wool and more a shoddy felt. For years the municipalities have been nearly begging the Legislature, but unsuccessfully, for some reasonable standards of eligibility governing the 100% tax exemption for charitable organizations and other non-profit, non-governmental corporations. In another area of tax law, the municipalities would like to fix the ambiguous standard governing the pollution control equipment exemption, which is running right now like a horse without a rider. At the same time, the Legislature seems to be going in the other direction, as it considers expanding both the Veteran's' exemption and the Farmland "current use" tax program this session.

The municipalities are now standing in the corner with the full value property taxpayers. The municipal request is entirely consistent. We are asking that all the laws that provide less than full value assessments to designated property interests have specific stated objectives and a method for the common taxpayer to measure whether those stated objectives are obtained. LD 2594 creates that type of standard for land enrolled in the Tree Growth program, and MMA's Legislative Policy Committee does not believe that the demand for that type of standard is an unreasonable or non-credible request. The question that still remains is whether the precise standard created in LD 2594 is workable.


Where it goes from here

Immediately after the public hearing, the committee voted LD 2594 "ought not to pass", and the committee's negative recommendation to the full Legislature will undoubtedly be accepted. With that decision, the proposal will go before the voters on the November 7, 2000 statewide ballot under the question: Do you favor requiring landowners to obtain a permit for all clear-cuts and defining cutting levels for lands subject to the Tree Growth tax law?

MMA is now entirely receptive to thoughtful explanations as to why the sustainability standard in LD 2594 can be demonstrated to be unworkable, the next question from the municipal community will be what kind of accountability standard can be put into place. Municipal officials who are interested in this issue should feel free to contact their Legislative Policy Committee representatives or Geoff Herman at 1-800-452-8786. (GH)

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