Compact for Maine's Forests an Affront to Democracy

by Conrad Heeschen

It should not be surprising that someone elected on the promise to run government like a business would choose the private and secret over a public process, even when the public process was his own creation. But by dumping the Council on Sustainable Forest Management for the paper industry's "Forest Compact," Governor King has demonstrated an astounding lack of foresight. Instead of waiting for his own Council's recommendations, which could have provided a legitimate scientific basis for changes to forest practice laws, Governor King decided to accept and promote the paper industry's version.

And, by accepting and promoting the paper industry's "Forest Compact," he and the Legislature have also squandered the work and credibility of the Council, as well as the good will it developed by its very public process.

Governor King established the Maine Council on Sustainable Forest Management in 1995. It was intended to take the wind out of the sails of the forest debate in the Legislature at the time, and it succeeded. What we heard was, "There's no problem in the woods, but the Governor's Council will take care of it [the problem]." Although I was initially skeptical about the Council, I attended several of its meetings and followed its work. I came to feel that it would probably come up with something that, though not perfect, would be good for the forests of Maine.

The Governor's forest sustainability Council used an open process. The public could attend and interact with Council members at each meeting. You could observe the Council as it struggled with various issues. And this was where the public was encouraged to express its concerns about forest issues. The Governor and Commissioner of Conservation Lovaglio bragged about the openness of the Council process, as contrasted to that of the Referendum.

Early this year the Governor's office led the Council to believe it would be asked to develop an alternative to the citizen-initiated Referendum. It would have been a logical extension of its charge to determine how effective current regulations are in achieving forest sustainability.

The Governor's Chief of Staff, Chuck Hewett, spoke to the Council and asked it to speed up its work. The Council began to meet twice a month, and with the help of a facilitator, developed lists of high and low priority items.

But behind the scenes was the real action. A self-selected group of Maine's 15 largest landowners and a few environmental groups was making a secret deal. And Governor King never did ask his Council.

Maine Audubon was in on the deal from the start. The Natural Resources Council of Maine for some time resisted being drawn into the secret deal, and urged the Governor to use his Council to develop an alternative. But the Governor ultimately laid down the law; the deal was the only game in town -- if NRCM wanted to have any input in forest policy, they had to join in.

Two members representing paper companies on the Governor's Council were active participants in the secret behind-the-scenes "stakeholders" deal. They, Commissioner Lovaglio and Maine Forest Service Director Chuck Gadzik were the only ones who actually knew what was going on in both groups. Other Council members felt they were being kept in the dark.

The industry representatives were instrumental in getting "high-yield silviculture" moved at the last minute from the low-priority list. This was done to give credibility to something the "stakeholder" group was to propose.

At the hearing on the Council's draft report in April, Commissioner of Conservation Ron Lovaglio suggested that any alternative would be "run by" the Council and conveyed the Governor's desire that the Council's work be used to evaluate alternatives.

That never happened either. The Governor even delayed the release of the Council's report for three weeks last summer, so it would not compete with the PR surrounding the secret deal. The Council was about to begin evaluating forest practices, and had intended to keep meeting to continue the discussions, but by mid-August all further meetings were canceled.

Prior to the Legislative Special Session to consider the paper industry's compact, Council members were polled to ask if they would endorse it, but a majority declined. Some members feel they have been used. The paper industry's compact certainly does not reflect the Council's work.

The public hearings on the "Compact" were for show, rather than a real opportunity for the public to offer, or the Legislative committee or the Legislature as a whole to solicit, meaningful input and act upon it. A broad spectrum of the public testified in opposition to the compact, but no substantive changes were permitted.

Most people speaking for the Compact at the hearings were part of the secret deal or associated with entities in on the deal. The theme throughout the hearings and the Legislative debate was that since these people worked such a long time to come up with the agreement, it shouldn't be altered. A leader of an environmental group in on the deal said that it was such a "finely-tuned piece of work it shouldn't be tinkered with," but claimed he didn't want to be in the position of telling the Legislature what to do.

If you weren't part of the secret deal it was impossible to get details about what was being discussed, even after the initial announcement in mid-June. A draft of the "Compact" was not available to outsiders, even legislators, until less than three weeks before the Special Session. It wasn't just too late to make any changes, it was a done deal.

This is not unlike other deals the Legislature has adopted, with a major exception: this entire process was secret from the beginning, and entirely outside government. There was no public input. The public process -- the Maine Council on Sustainable Forest Management -- was abandoned.

The Governor and the forest industry didn't want the Council around to remind the public of what could have been or to show up the shortcomings of the paper industry's compact. And since industry felt it was not in control of the Council, it wanted to move the ball into a court where it definitely had control -- behind the scenes and in the Legislature.

The political expediency of the compact is apparent. It was created with the express purpose of defeating the Referendum, not with long-term sustainable forestry in mind. By joining the process, the major environmental groups effectively took themselves out of the public discourse. They have let the industry define the terms of the debate.

More than one source told me that the "Compact" was essentially what the industry came in with at the start. Recent events only serve to reinforce the public view that "business as usual" prevails in Maine, which is why we ended up with the Referendum in the first place.


Conrad Heeschen is former State Representative for Maine House District 77, which includes Carthage, Wilton, Temple, Strong, Avon, and Phillips. This editorial originally appeared in the Northern Forest Forum, Autumn 1996 issue.


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