The Bangor Daily News
Wednesday, October 7, 1998

Sappi sells timberlands to Seattle firm

By Orna Izakson, Of the NEWS Staff-- A Seattle-based company, decried by environmentalists as a ''forest liquidator,'' will be the new owner of 905,000 acres in the heart of the Maine woods, about 5 percent of the state's forests. Plum Creek Timber Co. will pay the land's current owner, South African Pulp and Paper Industries Ltd., $180 million for parcels that include prime lake-front and mountain land. The move increases Plum Creek's timberlands from 2.4 million to 3.3 million acres, including forests in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Arkansas and Louisiana.


The deal announced Tuesday also involves ongoing negotiations between the state and Sappi for the purchase of conservation easements along 29 miles of Moosehead Lake and 15 miles at the Kennebec River's West Outlet. Negotiations over an easement are also being conducted between state officials and Plum Creek for 14 miles on the north side of Flagstaff Lake. If the negotiations are successful, the easements are expected to cost the state several million dollars.


Rick Holley, Plum Creek's president and chief executive officer, promised King during a Tuesday breakfast meeting in Brunswick that the company would continue its policy of keeping its forest lands open to the public. That means ''no gates, no bars, no fees,'' King said Tuesday.


Holley said the company considers clear-cutting a tool of last resort, although it is necessary in some cases. The company's current average clear-cut size is 50 acres, he said Tuesday evening.


The company also is committed to sustainable forestry, Holley said. Although he conceded that Plum Creek cuts slightly more than it grows on its lands in the Pacific Northwest, the opposite is true on the company's holdings in the Southeast. Holley said he expects to match cutting with growth on average in Maine.


Although Plum Creek has agreed to supply hardwood trees for Sappi's paper mill in Skowhegan for the next 40 years, Holley said that amount constitutes only about a third of the company's anticipated annual harvest. The company is interested in using the rest of its cut for higher-value products, such as saw logs.


Environmentalists have been concerned for weeks since hearing that Plum Creek was the likely buyer of the Sappi lands, both because of the company's well-publicized history of unsustainable logging and concerns about its recent efforts to sell some of its most spectacular land for development.


The proposed easements King announced would protect 500-foot strips along Moosehead and Flagstaff lakes, and 250-foot strips on either side of the headwaters of the Kennebec, protecting from development a total of 2,600 acres.


Jim Robbins, president of the Maine Forest Products Council, said he was ''ecstatic'' about Tuesday's news.


''An awful lot of our members were worried about losing their businesses or losing their jobs if that became a national park,'' he said, referring to a proposal by the environmental group RESTORE: The North Woods.


''Now it's going to remain a working forest, and it seems to me that it's a win-win situation for everybody. I understand Plum Creek is going to leave it accessible for the public to get in and enjoy it, and I understand that Sappi is also going to create some conservation easements along Moosehead Lake ... so there won't be development but there will still be a working forest.''


But while most environmentalists also praised the governor for his efforts to protect some land from development - the proposed easements are roughly 2 percent of the acreage King had hoped to protect in a secret proposal made to Sappi earlier this year - the easements discussed Tuesday were not nearly enough for them.


''The small scale and the apparent disinterest from Plum Creek in the state's proposal does not bode well for the long-term prospects of this land,'' said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. ''Everybody sees this as a signal that they have major development ambitions for these properties that they just purchased.''


Scenic lands left out of the public discussion to date include another 30 miles of undeveloped shoreline on Moosehead lake, as well as lands along Spencer Lake, the Moose River Bow Trip region, Bald Mountain Pond and many miles along the Kennebec River. It also does not include Mt. Crocker, portions of Mt. Abram, Spaulding and Sugarloaf.


Others raised questions about the process of purchasing the easements.


Author and Wytopitlock forest-activist Mitch Lansky called the general process ''extortion,'' and said outright purchase would be preferable to easements.


''Once a few people do this, literally anyone with shorefront property could demand a few million dollars to prevent what they could potentially do,'' he said. ''Do we want to own the land or do we want to have an easement that allows the company to do what it was already doing, and the only difference is that we're down a few million bucks?''


Indeed, according to staff at the Land Use Regulation Commission, the 30 miles of Moosehead Lake frontage Sappi is considering selling an easement on probably could not be developed significantly under existing zoning. Holley, Plum Creek's president, said the Flagstaff Lake property probably has little development value.


King defended the use of conservation easements over limiting development by specific zoning. ''Zoning can change; easements are forever,'' he said.


He and others involved with the proposed easements noted that the deal is far from done. The final dollar amounts are still open for negotiation, and whether the state can ever actually take ownership of the easements would be up to the Legislature and the voters.


If or when the state and the timber companies agree to a price, The Nature Conservancy has agreed to put forward the money to acquire the easements. The governor cannot commit funds to buy the easements from the private conservation group, but King said he would support either a direct appropriation to cover those costs or a bond that voters would have to approve.


King said the sale to Plum Creek as well as other opportunities to acquire conservation easements around the state have led him to favor setting aside more state money for such projects.


A committee King appointed last year recommended asking voters to approve a $45 million bond for such acquisitions. King forwarded a request to the Legislature for a $10 million bond, and the lawmakers ultimately approved $3 million in a direct appropriation. King said Tuesday he now would favor a larger bond than he did last year, and while he declined to give a specific number, he said it would be something on the order of the $35 million bond Mainers approved for land acquisition 10 years ago.


Property-rights activist Mary Adams said Tuesday she was pleased that Sappi and Plum Creek ''didn't go overboard'' in considering conservation easements, and called the scope of King's original proposal ''outrageous.'' She welcomed the company to the contentious future of forestry and land use in Maine.


If Plum Creek wants to come to Maine ''with these odd, performing Greens that have settled around here like Gypsies, then I say God bless them for taking us on,'' she said.


Holley, the Plum Creek president, said the rancor that threatened to send other Maine forest-products companies packing actually enticed him. The company is very familiar with the issues after years in the Pacific Northwest, he said. And that, he added, may even give Plum Creek a competitive advantage here in Maine.

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