Rangers, rumors, Tree Growth, BETR and more

By Patrick Strauch, MFPC Executive Director

at the legislatureLast week was a busy time in the Legislature but my thoughts were focused on an anonymous rant by an individual describing how forest rangers keep “greedy” landowners under constant enforcement action to protect the environment. If rangers don’t all get their guns, the rumor goes, they’ll become seasonal firefighters (not a position we have advocated) and there will be serious ramifications for the natural resources of Maine.

To keep the discussion on a higher level,  I wrote a summary of our position on arming rangers. We think there needs to be more discussion about the policy direction for the Maine Forest Service (MFS) in light of changing forest management priorities. In the all-out campaign to arm rangers, there are very few who understand the need to ask the broader question about why – when resources in the policy and entomology divisions are stretched so thin — we would even consider a major expansion into a public safety role.

I was disappointed that Rep. James Dill, D-Old Town, the chair of the Agriculture Conservation and Forestry Committee, could not bring LD 297 to the ACF committee for a more fundamental policy discussion.  Avoiding the policy discussion initiates a game of brinksmanship based on arming all 74 rangers and a debate about the fiscal note based on the level of training to be required. We will keep you posted.

Tree Growth taxes and competitive mills: The Taxation Committee made quick work of LD 1649 An Act to Make Maine Mills More Competitive by Encouraging the Processing of Forest Products at Mills in the United States, with the majority voting ought not to pass.  After receiving testimony from MFS, SWOAM, MFPC and the Maine Municipal Association – all opposing the bill – and a letter of concern from Maine Revenue Service it was clear that this concept was flawed.  In reality the effort to fully fund BETR will have the greatest impact on encouraging the competitiveness of Maine mills.

BETR: John Williams reports that legislators and business leaders are meeting to discuss the importance of the BETR program as lawmakers have linked revenue-sharing funding with this important business taxation status. The budget gap will continue to take center stage as committee holdover bills are dealt with along with the few new bills this session.

Outcome Based Forestry (OBF) continues to be discussed in the State House hallways and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Audubon and Applachian Mountain Club  are focused on more legislative controls for the process.  My advice is for the ACF committee to head to the woods and tour OBF operations, and efforts are being made to organize such a trip. Dr Maxwell McCormack prepared a very good synopsis of the OBF program for the February SWOAM newsletter.

Wood Processor confidentiality and MFS Permit-Granting Authority: MFPC testified in favor of LD 1665 An Act To Clarify the Confidentiality of Wood Processor Report Information  and LD 1673 An Act To Further Delegate Permit-Granting Authority to the Bureau of Forestry, both fairly straight forward bills that encountered some NGO opposition.  LD 1665 simply strengthens the confidentiality provision in the mill delivered volume reporting for the Wood Processors Report.  NRCM had trouble with the language, seeing it as too expansive, but I think the work session will serve to inform committee members. This information is a highly competitive customer list, which needs to be protected. Improved reports can be produced that will inform policy makers on wood flows in Maine. LD 1673 completes the consolidation of forestry law permitting authority under MFS supervision.  MFS foresters currently enforce forestry laws for shoreland zoning and the FPA in organized and deorganized areas of the state.  It only makes sense that  DEP delegate permitting authority to MFS for NRPA rules that relate to forestry operations.  Currently MFS personnel arrive on a site to inspect harvesting operations, train foresters, landowners and loggers on the use of BMPs for water quality, and compliance with all other forestry laws, but they cannot issue permits for stream crossings.  SAM, Maine Guides Association, NRCM and Audubon expressed concern with the implications for Resource Protection Areas (Deer yards, vernal pools, inland wading bird and waterfowl habitat), but forestry operations are exempt from these features if they are not mapped through a legislative process (only a few deer yards are in this category).  As in the Unorganized Territory, any permits in these areas would require sign-off by IFW biologists. This should all be made clear in the work session.

Forester licensing: This week we will be testifying in favor of LD 1735 An Act To Amend Forester Licensing Requirements. Among other changes we think graduates of an accredited forestry school should be awarded a license if they pass a state forestry law test versus the requirement for an internship followed by a broad examination of forestry principles.

Wind power zoning in the UT: LD 616 An Act To Amend the Expedited Permitting Area for Wind Energy Development under the Jurisdiction of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission passed out of the Energy, Utilities and Technology (EUT) Committee with a majority ought to pass report, but a strong debate is anticipated in the Legislature. Under the recent amendment (still waiting for the official committee report) a majority of residents registered to vote in a UT region can petition LUPC for a zoning change on neighboring property. This is an unprecedented amount of power to grant UT residents over land use laws.  Currently only the landowner can petition the LUPC  for a zoning change on property. Allowing opponents to a project greater authority over zoned uses than the landowner would not be tolerated in most legislators home towns, and it is unfair and unsettling for landowners in the UT.  While the focus today is wind power, we think the precedent is established to affect zoning decisions for development and potentially forest management operations.  MFPC was instrumental in reforming LURC to provide a more local voice in regional planning, but establishing home rule authority in the region is problematic, and could result in only a few residents dictating the future options for an entire township or larger region.

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