by Jym St. Pierre
Meaningful forestry reform in Maine is dead for at least another year. The conservationists did their job. The legislature--pressured by the forest industry, enabled by the King Administration and haunted by anti-environmental extremists--did not. In late March, following an intense three months, the Maine legislature voted to kill all proposals supported by conservationists. Instead, at press time, the legislature was deadlocked over a measure that did little more than apply additional funding for the inadequate Forest Practices Act and mandate more study of the problem.
For years during the 1980s a few conservationists sounded the alarm that we needed better public oversight of forest practices in the so-called working forest. That is the 99% of Maine's 17.5 million acres of commercial woodlands that are not protected by strict conservation ownership. In 1989, a Forest Practices Act was passed by the legislature and rules put into place by the Maine Forest Service that ostensibly put on the brakes to slow the worst of the landscape abuses. However, experience soon demonstrated that the FPA was no more than a sanctioning of continued unsustainable forestry in the statistically most wooded (but increasingly deforested) state in the U.S.
In the 1990s, conservationists continued to try to use the legislative route to get better public regulation of the scorched earth forestry used by the paper corporations and forest liquidators. Data continued to flood in proving that the industrial forest was being mined. Polls continued to pile up showing massive public support for drastic action to staunch the problem. Nevertheless, legislators turned a deaf ear. Each time the conservation proposals were defeated or turned into hollow studies.
In 1995, a citizen's referendum was initiated to ban clearcutting and improve the sustainability of timber harvesting in the half of Maine where the gigantic paper companies operate, since that was by far where the worst logging was occurring. Governor King labeled it economically too radical. The King Administration brought together the paper companies and a few conservation groups to assemble an alternative, the Compact for Maine's Forests. In November 1996, after a hard fought campaign, both the Ban Clearcutting Referendum and the Forest Compact were rejected by voters. The Forest Compact came to a second statewide vote a year later and was again rejected. The action shifted back to the legislative arena.
Following two years of searing animosity within the environmental community, conservationists came back together. In December-January, they worked out a 4-point plan that built and improved upon key provisions of the Forest Compact and the reports of the Council on Sustainable Forest Management and the Northern Forest Lands Council. The plan would have vastly improved management by the 15 largest landowners. It called for strict limits on the amount and size of clearcuts to stem the loss of biodiversity, forest productivity and forestry jobs; sustainable harvesting limits to ensure cutting does not exceed growth; science-based stocking standards so enough trees are left after logging to ensure healthy regeneration; and mandatory audits to ensure accountability in protecting wildlife, water quality and other critical natural features. The broad provisions of the plan were introduced to the legislature's forestry committee at a hearing in December. The specifics were provided to committee members and legislative leaders in one-on-one meetings early in 1998.
Under the banner of the North Woods Coalition, from January through March, an unprecedented assemblage of organizations cooperated on an impressive legislative campaign in support of the 4-point plan the likes of which Maine has never seen. Groups endorsing the Coalition's plan included the Appalachian Mountain Club, Forest Ecology Network, Maine Audubon Society, National Audubon Council of Maine, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Northern Forest Alliance, Northern Forest Council of Maine, RESTORE: The North Woods, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society.
The campaign used a blitz of simultaneous strategies, including a workshop to provide activists with detailed information about the 4-point plan; full-page ads in newspapers throughout the state explaining the plan; radio spots featuring landowners, loggers, foresters, guides and anglers describing the need for action; mail, e-mail and phone alerts to activists which generated hundreds of calls and letters to and meetings with legislators; presentation to legislators of compelling information distilled from government forest inventory and other essential studies; polling which showed massive public support; meetings with newspapers that resulted in powerful editorial endorsements; full-time lobbying with briefing lunches for legislators and countless individual meetings; and well disciplined weekly, sometimes daily, meetings of the North Woods Coalition groups to set and refine strategy.
The climax of the campaign was a boisterous rally at the State House on March 24 at which conservation activists called for the legislature to "act now" on progressive forestry reform. That night the House voted 100-39 to kill the conservationists' bill. During the next few days they voted in favor of the forestry committee's majority bill and overwhelmingly to defeat each of the conservationists' four points when they were offered as separate amendments. The committee majority bill was assembled based predominantly on advice from Chuck Gadzik, director of the Maine Forest Service, and lobbyists for the forest industry. Even the Gadzik-industry bill ran into trouble when the Senate tinkered with it, angering House members. At press time, it was uncertain whether any bill would pass the legislature, but it was clear that there would be no progressive forestry reform this year.
After years of public debate about the issue, except for a few fringe folks in deep denial, there is no question we are overcutting and ruining the forests in Maine. Conservationists fashioned the most thoughtful solution targeted at the worst aspects of the problem offered to date. They conducted a nearly textbook perfect campaign, combining grassroots and professional focus on each of the key pressure points in the process at the appropriate time. Despite all this, meaningful legislation failed. Why?
First, the pressure was off. Without a referendum facing lawmakers, they felt little incentive to pass a strong bill. Their fear of the possibility of another referendum was not enough to overcome the inertia of the status quo.
Second, the King Administration refused to provide the kind of leadership needed. Governor King, still in a snit about losing two votes on his Forest Compact, would not bless the conservationists' proposal even though it was based heavily on the Compact. Rather he allowed Chuck Gadzik, his Forest Service director, to tell legislators what most of them were already eager to hear. That is, don't do anything drastic.
Third, the forest industry broke their recent promise that they would support legislation to ensure sustainable forestry and accountability. With the Maine Forest Service doing most of their dirty work, the industry was able to play victim and get away with it. The few progressives within their ranks were routed by the do-nothing hard liners.
Fourth, the private property extremists, exploited the ambiguity about the meaning of the two votes on the Forest Compact, using it as an opportunity to sow confusion in an already chaotic legislature. Their vocal advocates, both inside and outside the legislature, used the power of doubt and suspicion to demonize reasonable proposals. It is always easier to stop than to pass a bill.
Fifth, organized labor choked. Their state leaders understood the value of endorsing the conservationists' bill, but many of their local leaders are in cahoots with the anti-environmental crowd. At best they sent a mixed message to the legislature.
Sixth, the conservationists hung together, but relied too much on the insider game. They deserve credit for setting aside deep hurts and coalescing quickly around a politically pragmatic proposal. However, their strategy of expecting to convince, first, legislative leaders, and, ultimately, rank and file lawmakers, failed to adequately acknowledge that political logic is a subspecies with diminishing connection to its ancestor intellectual logic. Also, conservationists alone are not enough of a force. They need other political allies such as labor, sportsmen and women, and business. The same bill the enviros constructed, introduced earlier in the session and endorsed by many other parties, so that it was seen as the people's bill, would have had a better chance.
Finally, it is legislators who must shoulder most of the blame. The leadership of the forestry committee and the leaders of the House and Senate especially failed to recognize this was the political moment to act decisively. They underestimated the environmental, economic and political consequences of wasting this historic opportunity to improve protection of the public interest in the fate of our forests. With the legislature determined to make itself irrelevant to the ongoing raging forestry debate, it should come as no surprise if we end up with another citizens' initiative.
(c) 1998 Jym St. Pierre, RESTORE: The North Woods, 7 North Chestnut Street, Augusta, ME 04330, (207) 626-5635.