The Bangor Daily News
Thursday, April 2, 1998
Lawmakers send industry-supported forestry bill to governor
By Orna Izakson, Of the NEWS Staff -- AUGUSTA - Lawmakers Wednesday approved a new forestry bill after the Senate backed away from a controversial clear-cutting amendment that had threatened to kill the measure.
Supported by industry and Gov. Angus King, who was expected to sign it into law Thursday, the bill directs the Maine Forest Service to collect data and produce several reports on the state of the Maine woods. It also changes requirements for buffers around clear-cuts and gives the state conservation commissioner the power to set more stringent clear-cutting standards.
But the bill may not do enough to settle the forestry issue, which came before voters in 1996 and 1997 in the form of separate and competing referendums. Environmentalists have dubbed the bill a "do-nothing measure" and are considering taking the matter directly back to the voters.
Lawmakers hoping to get the bill past the disagreement between the House and the Senate said the measure was "too important to kill." That message ultimately moved all but four senators to drop an amendment rejected three times by the House that would have limited clear-cuts to 75 acres on parcels larger than 500 acres.
"What happened in this session is clearly the most progressive steps the Legislature's taken in the last decade relative to forestry," said Bill Vail, director of the Maine Forest Products Council. The state's budget signed into law Wednesday includes $400,000 to fully fund the Forest Practices Act and to conduct an annual inventory of the state's forests.
Conservation Commissioner Ron Lovaglio conceded that, aside from the funding that was included in the budget, there was nothing in the forestry bill itself that the Maine Forest Service could not do without a legislative mandate. But, he said, the forest service might not perform those analyses of sustainabilty benchmarks and other issues without lawmakers directing them to do so.
The state's major environmental organizations decried the bill as a "do-nothing" measure after it emerged as the Forestry Committee's compromise.
Amendments that would have strengthened the bill were firmly rejected by the House, and two efforts by the Senate to limit clear-cuts to 75 acres on parcels larger than 500 acres nearly killed the bill.
After the House on Wednesday morning refused to accept the clear-cut limits for the third time, the Senate voted 24-4 to drop the amendment.
"Today was an opportunity for us to capture that core issue in this legislation," said a disappointed Sen. Philip Harriman, R-Yarmouth, who sponsored the second Senate amendment. "Unfortunately, it appears some political gamesmanship superseded what's best for Maine's forests."
Before the bill's fate was sealed, environmentalists said they didn't care whether it passed without the amendment.
"Whether they pass it or not doesn't matter because it doesn't do anything," said Catherine Johnson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "There's nothing in the bill that's going to require the paper companies to change one thing about the way they're managing the forests now."
Referendum-wielding activist Jonathan Carter and representatives of several other environmental groups joined forces earlier this year to push for stronger forestry legislation. Their four-point plan represented a compromise, Carter changing his stance opposing all clear-cuts, and other groups dropping issues that did not pertain to the state's largest landowners.
With their fight for stricter legislation clearly lost for the year, Johnson and Carter said members of the North Woods Coalition will now have to regroup and consider their options, which could include bringing the issue directly back to Maine voters.
Carter, who in 1996 led an unsuccessful effort to ban clear-cutting in the north woods, said he was leaning strongly toward launching another referendum. Legislators have failed, and their failure is not going to be ignored, he said. "There will be consequences, in my opinion, as a result of the Legislature's inability to move forward. Whether it will be at the ballot box next November or through another referendum or a combination of those two things, it's clear that something's going to have to transpire."
Johnson and Carter both said environmentalists plan to remain united rather than fragmenting again as they did during the debate over the Compact for Maine's Forests in 1996 and 1997.
Property-rights activist Mary Adams said she was disappointed that the bill passed.
"This is going to be a heads-up to the industry that the Legislature is as arrogant as it ever was and does not understand what it's like for working foresters and small landowners," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Copyright © 1998, Bangor Daily News Inc.