The Bangor Daily News
Wednesday, October 21, 1998
By Paul Kane, States News Service-- WASHINGTON _ A last-ditch effort to approve a bill that would make it easier for states to buy private wilderness land in New England failed this week, leaving its supporters pondering their moves for next year in Congress. The bill would allow for states to receive more federal assistance in protecting the 26 million acres of northern forest, a loosely connected range of timberland running from northern New York to eastern Maine.
The plan has broad bipartisan support in the region, including the co-sponsorship of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, but that coalition broke down Monday as the Maine Republicans opposed a Democratic effort to pass the bill.
Previously, the measure had been stalled by property rights activists, who claim it would lead to a large federal land grab. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, a leading sponsor of the Northern Forest Stewardship Act, tried to include the act with a bill for upkeep of dams out West, viewed as anti-environmental by some.
At this point in the year, with only a day or two of legislative activity left, only bills with the unanimous support of all 100 senators can pass because they require no debate and no roll call vote. When an unknown senator objected to the Northern Forest bill, Leahy objected to the dam bill _ ending both their chances for approval.
"If the anti-environmental riders are going through on unanimous consent, something as sound as the [Northern Forest bill] ought to be able to go through,'' said David Carle, Leahy's spokesman.
But Snowe and Collins also did not support Leahy's efforts because of a previous promise to property rights activists that they would schedule a field hearing on the issue in Maine.
"She has made a solemn vow that there will be a public hearing [in Maine],'' said Don Meyer, Snowe's spokesman.
"This should not go through without field hearings,'' said Felicia Knight, spokeswoman for Collins.
But supporters noted that the stewardship act grew out of a public process in New England in the early 1990s and has been given public hearings in Washington.
The bill would allow states to identify private lands in danger of being sold to developers. The states could tap federal dollars to buy the land, but no one would be forced to sell, and sales would be initiated by the states, not the federal government.
Andrea Stander, spokeswoman for the Northern Forest Alliance, said the measure would help Maine in buying up land to prevent it from being privately developed. Stander noted that two timber companies now own 15 percent of Maine and the federal government needs to help the state protect the land from development.
"What little is left needs to be protected now,'' she said.