A Clearance Sale Down East

Maine’s Northern Forests are Going to the Highest Bidder

Flying high over Maine’s Baxter State Park, all looks well with the Northern Forest, a vast swatch of green covering 26 million acres in four states. The dense timberlands stretch out in an unbroken, verdant expanse, with the monotony broken only by the broad sparkle of clear lakes and the sighting of an occasional moose. But look beyond the park’s borders and all is not well in this sparsely populated region, where timber companies own most of the land and even most of the roads. From the air, the forests are a patchwork of clearcuts.

Photo: Moosehead Lake

The sale of 911,000 acres of Maine forest land to Plum Creek Timber Company scares many environmentalists, but some acreage on jewel-like Moosehead Lake will be protected.

Maine’s northernmost and poorest unincorporated territories include 10.5 million acres of woodlands—more than half the state’s total—that are in the hands of a couple dozen large paper and timber interests. Although the Maine Forest Practices Act, hammered together in 1989 by a coalition of environmentalists, government and logging companies, theoretically limits clearcuts to 35 acres and provides other protections, in reality, the timber barons do pretty much what they want on their own land.

Increasingly, the northern forests are falling prey to what the Natural Resources Council of Maine calls “cut-and-run logging,” a cycle that begins with the cheap purchase of undeveloped woodlands. Working fast, loggers then cut every economically valuable tree, leaving thin “beauty strips” between their clearcuts. When the big trees are exhausted, the owners sell the smaller trees to chip mills, then market the land for development. It’s a cycle that takes highly productive woodlands out of the Northern Forest forever for short-term profit.

Maine’s environmentalists are divided. Last year, an unlikely coalition of property rights advocates and the Green Party worked together to defeat the admittedly somewhat compromised Compact for Maine’s Forests, which other environmental groups supported.

Shortly after that vote, two of Maine’s biggest logger-landowners announced that they were putting their vast holdings on the block. The fire sale included 911,000 acres owned by South Africa Pulp and Paper (SAPPI) Ltd. and Bowater Inc.‘s more than two million acres, adding up to 15 percent of the state.

The first shoe dropped last October, when SAPPI announced it had a buyer in the Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber Company, which was paying a bargain-basement $180 million. Environmentalists, most of whom had considered Plum Creek the least-qualified bidder, were shocked. In Montana, where the company is a major landowner (1.5 million acres in the western part of the state) and political powerhouse, an outraged Republican congressman called the company the “Darth Vader” of the timber industry.

According to Steve Thompson, a Whitefish-based natural resource consultant, Plum Creek has “a virtual monopoly” on logging in Montana, owning a majority of the milling and 90 percent of the industrial timber base. The company, which was spun off from the Burlington National Railroad in 1988, owes its fortune to timber rights won by rail operators through the Northern Pacific Land Grant of 1864 (the so-called “Lincoln logs”).

Thompson says that Plum Creek began “liquidation logging” on its Montana lands in the 1990s, cutting up vast swaths in a checkerboard pattern. With most of the better trees logged, the company hired a consultant and identified 150,000 acres that it might sell for development because, according to Bob Jirsa, Plum Creek’s director of corporate and environmental affairs, “it didn’t fit in for long-term forestry.” Although the land amounts to only five percent of Plum Creek’s Montana holdings, Thompson says the property identified amounts to some of the most productive timber acreage in the state, serving important roles as wildlife corridors and hunting and fishing sites. “This is what the people in Maine should be concerned about,” Thompson says.

Plum Creek’s Jirsa says his company’s “Darth Vader” image is not warranted. The company was, in fact, “stung” by Congressman Rod Chandler’s comment. “We are absolutely good stewards of the land,” Jirsa says. Its large clearcuts are a thing of the past, a product of the 1970s and ‘80s when “everyone was doing them, even the U.S. Forest Service. But now that kind of thing is no longer acceptable.” Plum Creek’s environmental principles, adopted in 1990, call for sustainable forest management, protection of water and air quality, soil conservation and reforestation. But skeptics like Thompson say that the company practices environmental forestry on only 20 percent of its more visible properties in Montana; out of sight, it’s business as usual.

As part of the Plum Creek deal, the state of Maine will get conservation easements (basically, promises not to develop) on 1,908 acres, most of it invaluable Moosehead Lake and Kennebec River shoreline. But Michael Kellett, executive director of Restore: The North Woods, an activist group based in Massachusetts, wants to see much more land protected. Restore envisions an enormous 3.2 million-acre state park in northern Maine.

Kellett isn’t worried about working with “Darth Vader,” and doesn’t see the cause as hopeless, despite the need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Plum Creek, he says, “is not radically different from the landowners who had the property before. They’re not ideologically driven, but very much focused on the bottom line.”

Is there support in Maine for a huge new park? Sherry Huber, executive director of the Maine Tree Foundation, says she’s disappointed that the Plum Creek deal didn’t include more protected land, but she’s not sure another park is needed. “All the large landowners already permit recreation, hunting and fishing,” she says. “It’s a 300-year tradition.”

Maine’s environmentalists were still reeling from the Plum Creek announcement when, a few weeks later, Bowater said that it would sell half its state lands—a million acres—to the huge family-owned J.D. Irving conglomerate of New Brunswick, Canada for $220 million. Irving, which already owned 500,000 acres in the state and will now be Maine’s largest private landowner, has a reputation for clearcutting and intensive forest management. Judy Berk, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, says, “Our concern is Irving’s history of replacing natural forests with plantation growth.”

Hearing that a heavily-sprayed Irving forest in New Brunswick has been identified as “well-managed” by Scientific Certification Systems, activist Mitch Lansky of the Low-Impact Forestry Project responded, “To claim that Irving’s forest is not a plantation is like Clinton saying that what he did with Monica was not sex.”