Tree Growth and biomass top forestry issues this session

The first session of the 128th Legislature was very busy and MFPC was involved right down to the closing days of the session. I was hoping that in the second session, which starts Jan. 3, there would be enough legislative discipline – and to some degree it looks like there has been — to limit the number of issues we have to deal with.

There are 319 total carryover bills and about 10 of those are on our watch list, ranging from the age-old guns and rangers effort, to a lot of important discussion about biomass, biomass energy and energy policy. And, of course, the governor’s Tree Growth bill, LD 1599, was carried over as well. I’ll talk about that separately. 

There are also new bills. I’ve been here when quite a few new bills have been allowed in the second session, but this year, it was a pretty rigorous process. A total of 93 new bills have been allowed and there are about a dozen or so that are on our watch list. Details of the bills are limited with only a title and short summary, so there’s no way to know exactly what’s being proposed. There also are agency bills and the governor can always put in a bill at any time. So we’ll watch all of that activity.

As for Tree Growth, the Taxation Committee chairs appointed a committee that includes MFPC to “review all aspects of the MTGTL and develop recommendations regarding any changes you believe to be appropriate to improve the law and its administration.”

Sen. Dana Dow and Rep. Ryan Tipping wrote, “As you are aware nearly every Legislative Session bills are introduced proposing changes to the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law (MTGTL).  This is a very important law that has worked extremely well since its inception nearly fifty years ago.  It is useful to periodically review the law to ensure it is working properly and that participants are living up to the spirit and requirements of the program . . . We want to make sure that any changes are made in a thoughtful manner.

There’s a specific list of items we were meant to investigate. That group has met three times and to discuss what are meaningful reforms that are appropriate for the Tree Growth Tax Program. (Read Legislature Charge to Committee). Here are the latest statistics on Tree Growth in municipalities and in the Unorganized Territory

The committee would like to hear from the public on these issues, so on Tuesday, Jan. 3, there is a public meeting from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Room 126 of the State House (Transportation Committee Room) in Augusta for the purpose of gathering information and comments on the following charges:

  • Identifying changes in penalty provisions that should be made in the law;
  • Identifying any impediments to enforcement and recommending changes that would improve enforcement;
  • Identifying any causes of confusion among landowners, foresters or assessors regarding the requirements or administration of the law and recommending changes to improve administration;
  • Analyzing whether the minimum lot size of 10 acres for new enrollments of land should be modified;
  • Analyzing whether there are changes to the forester licensing law that would improve the administration of the law;
  • Analyzing the proper role of the Maine Forest Service in implementing the law;
  • Identifying whether there are requirements in the law that should be added or dropped;
  • Reviewing changes made to the Law in 2012 and assessing the effectiveness of those changes;
  • Providing any other information regarding the law that you think would be helpful to members of the Taxation Committee.

The report is not yet written, so I encourage our members and others in the forest community share their perspectives with the committee on Jan. 3. This is a forum for people to come and talk to us about the Tree Growth Tax program.

Biomass energy is another very important issue for our industry this session. There is going to be a lot of discussion about what biomass policy should look like and how we transition this important market in the face of low energy prices. We’ll also be talking about the importance of the energy plants that we have online now and the need to build a bridge to new solutions.

When talking with our sawmill members its clear we need to focus on outlets for sawmill residuals and to make sure that one of our strongest sectors is not hindered by the lack of markets for its byproducts. As pulpwood markets have shrunk there has been a growing use of energy markets for sawmill waste.  

A new study commissioned by the Governor’s Energy Office by Innovative Natural Resource Solutions (INRS) has recently been released, Analysis of the Energy & Environmental Economics of Maine’s Biomass Industry, that’s important reading for people who want to get involved with this issue and understand it going forward. We’re also working at the Roadmap level on trying to model a future where we have full utilization of all these materials that come out of sawmills.

Speaking of the Roadmap – aka Maine Forest Economy Growth Initiative – we are making considerable progress.  The James W. Sewall Co. has started the Phase 1 analysis of Maine’s wood supply and INRS is working on the wood energy cost benefit analysis, with its report to be delivered in January. The finalists for the Global Market Analysis will be announced soon and work will begin in early January. An RFP was issued Dec. 8 (closing Jan. 10) for a firm to help the Roadmap project write its strategic plan.

We’re really trying to get a handle on emerging wood technologies and how we organize as a state to welcome capital investors. As the committees do their work and the initiatives provide the facts we need,  the focus of the steering committee will be packaging all that together, thinking about how to best relate all of this information to communities and policymakers, and coming up with a vision of what the future could be.

I can report there is a high level of interest from many people in the world examining Maine as a place to cite their wood manufacturing facility and they are asking questions about our resource and workforce. We already have the University of Maine, Maine Department of Economic & Community Development, Maine International Trade Center, Maine Development Foundation and community and industry organizations, including MFPC, working toward guiding this interest to the right places. We’ve been visited recently by potential pellet manufacturers, a fence manufacturer and there’s a strong push to locate a facility for cross-laminated timber in Maine, and all these are being done by a collection of people interested in the future of Maine.

In the perfect world, I would say that we’ll get through the legislative session, dealing with the day-to-day policy issues, while also gearing up to inform future policymakers as we enter into the next election cycle. We’re going to have a lot of information to report as we go through the  Roadmap’s planning process and consider how best to capitalize on those ideas.

So I look forward to welcoming the 128th Legislature back to deal with immediate issues that affect the people in our industry and communities, and to begin sharing the collective industries vision for our future forest economy.