The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Five     Number One                           Late Winter 2001

 Are Mega-Easements Worth the Bargain?

by Mitch Lansky

We are supposed to believe that the mega-easements being proposed for the West Branch Project on around 650,000 acres of former Great Northern land are an inexpensive way to "save," "conserve," "protect" or "preserve" the woods. Despite such lofty, green-sounding terms, these easements are not primarily intended to protect the biological integrity of the forest. Forests under these easements will be managed, for better or for worse, pretty much as the landowners desire. Rather, the easements are designed primarily to limit development.

The biggest threat to the forest in this region to date, however, has been from forest practices, rather than development. In the unorganized territories since1972, logging roads have converted nine times as much land from forests as development has. Over the last few decades, this area has had vast clear-cuts and seen a decline in volume of both softwoods and hardwoods. To the extent that landowners can continue overcutting, highgrading or herbicide spraying, the public might wonder how land under conservation easements could be called "conserved."

All the land in the proposed easement areas is zoned by the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) to protect sensitive areas and to prevent unwanted development. The land is also all under the Tree Growth Tax, which is a form of voluntary zoning (with tax incentives) for forestry. The degree to which easement advocates think the public should pay to protect what LURC and Tree Growth are already supposed to protect is the degree to which they are implying that these publicly funded programs do not work. If these programs are not working, then we ought to fix them.

The projected cost of the West Branch easements is nearly a third of the full-fee purchase price that McDonald Investment Co. paid for the land just a few years ago. To justify such huge expenditures of public money mostly to prevent "development," supporters have an obligation to demonstrate that:

1) every acre to be put under easement is (or will be) actually threatened by development     (otherwise, why pay for it?);
2) every acre that could be developed would be developed immediately rather than years from     now (otherwise why pay today's market price, rather than a price reflecting discounted     future values?);
3) all "development" that could happen if there were no easement is a threat to public values     (otherwise, why prevent it?);
4) there are no alternative approaches that protect truly threatened forest land at a lower cost;     and
5) there are no uses of the same funds that better serve the public in forest protection.

Save for seasonal camps along some shorelands, there is very little development on the West Branch lands now. There is a reason for this. All the roads are private and require access through other landownerships. Through much of the area, travelers have to pay gate fees to North Maine Woods, which manages the multi-landowner region for recreation. Indeed, public access may not even be assured in the easement.

While easements have been effective in some regions to slow urban sprawl, in this region, there is no urban to sprawl from. There is no infrastructure for development, such as utility electricity, schools, hospitals or stores. There is no clamor to build condos in the clear-cuts or Wal-Marts in the wildlands. Most development of any consequence would have to wait for years until infrastructure is developed.

Even those who cut the woods (and many of these are Canadian citizens) either have to commute long distances, or stay in logging camps. Easements over all the land, even away from shorelands, would ensure that forest workers cannot have their residences near their work.

If we subtract the lands where development is impractical, improbable or not a serious problem, how much money is actually being spent per acre of lands

where development is truly a threat to public values? Does this add up to more than the full purchase price of these acres?

In a state with barely more than 1 percent of our land in ecological reserves, would we be better off buying land for full protection, rather than the illusion of protection? For the same amount of money that the public might pay to "conserve" out-of-state landowners'logging programs in the West Branch, the state could create a new reserve system nearly as large as Baxter State Park.

There are other serious questions about how these easements are being sold. Various public and private agencies, including the state's Land for Maine's Future (LMF) and the congressionally funded Forest Legacy program, have been coming up with money before the terms of the deeds are settled and made public. Various environmental groups have endorsed the project without knowing the details or the real prices.

Some of those who are representing the public on the Land for Maine Future board are also representing landowners who could benefit from the precedent of a generous deal. Ralph Knoll, of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, is the key negotiator for the state. He is also on the board of the Forest Society of Maine, the organization that has been the prime architect of the easement for the landowner. Is this a conflict of interest?

What type of precedent is being set? Can we as a society afford to pay all landowners in the region to not develop their beauty strips or to not damage important wildlife habitat after paying for this already through other programs? Although sustainable forest management is not part of the easement; if it were, would this be a good idea? Will we have to pay all landowners in the state to not damage their forests? What type of meaningful standards could be set, who would enforce them, and how much would it cost? Does this mean that it is acceptable for landowners to abuse their land unless the public pays them not to? This sounds more like a precedent for a protection racket.

When it comes to buying land for conservation purposes, there is not much of a competitive market. The government is the prime buyer. Landowners can (and have) taken advantage of public agencies with money to burn. Should we be rewarding conservation speculators who threaten to develop their land if they do not get an easement? Are these landowners going to use the money to improve forest health or pay workers more? Or will they just get a short-term boost in profits?

We need people representing us who will make sure that the public (not just the landowner) gets a good deal for the money spent. It is not clear, in the West Branch Project, that this is happening.

Mitch Lansky is a resident of Wytopitlock and the author of the book Beyond the Beauty Strip - Saving What's Left of Our Forests, published by Tilbury House.

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