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Plum Creek proposal: committee now turns its focus to land conservation  

The promise of 430,000 acres of protected forest land around Moosehead Lake is, for many, the biggest selling point for Plum Creek Timber Co.’s development plans.

But the conservation piece of the plan is as complicated and contentious as the part of the plan that calls for two resorts and 975 house lots scattered around Maine’s largest lake. Where some see a golden opportunity to preserve forests, others see a legal maze of exceptions and loopholes.

The mix of land sales and easements – some to be donated and some to be sold – will soon be the focus of a state panel that resumes its review of the project this week in Augusta.

The Maine Land Use Regulation Commission will hear arguments ranging from whether hiking lodges, gravel pits and other uses should be allowed in conservation areas to the bigger questions: Are the limits on future development enough to compensate for the project’s potential impact on the wildlife and character of the region? How much of the overall conservation plan should be counted as balance for the development.

The deal, if approved, would be one of the largest land preservation packages in the country, perhaps second only to a 763,000-acre conservation easement on Pingree family timberlands across northern and western Maine. The conservation plan proposed by Plum Creek covers an area roughly twice the size of Baxter State Park.

“It’s land on either side of Moosehead Lake that we and others have been trying to (conserve) for over a decade,” said Alan Hutchinson of the Forest Society of Maine, a participant in the conservation deal. “This connects the pieces that form a wall between the development pressure pushing form the south and the real heart of Maine’s North Woods.”

Critics say the promise of conservation is only as good as the detailed language in the easements that limit land uses by Plum Creek and future owners.

“We don’t think it’s enforceable,” said Ken Spalding, Maine woods project coordinator for RESTORE: The North Woods, an opponent of the plan. Even if it is, he said, the agreements are so flawed they don’t provide enough protection beyond what’s already in place.

“You really have look at what you’re getting,” he said.

Conservation is more than just a selling point in the plan. It’s a legal mandate.

Plum Creek is asking for a large-scale rezoning of commercial timberland under rules that require the owner to balance the impacts with public conservation benefits. It’s up to the landowner to offer what it thinks is appropriate balance.

In Plum Creek’s case, the company wants 20,000 acres rezoned for homes and resorts. As a balance for that, the company is offering to donate an easement that would restrict future development on 91,000 acres surrounding the homes and resorts.

The “balance easement,” as it is known, would allow Plum Creek or future owners to continue logging operations. It also would allow a limited number of other uses: communications towers, gravel removal, transmission lines for wind farms, septic sludge spreading, water extraction and so-called back country huts to provide accommodations for hikers or skiers. No residential development would be allowed, and public access would be guaranteed.

In addition, Plum Creek has agreed to sell a much larger easement on 266,000 surrounding acres. The so-called “legacy easement” would have slightly more permissive rules than the balance easement. It would allow full-fledged wind farms, for example.

Plum Creek also has agreed to sell two other sensitive parcels of forest totaling 74,500 acres. Those lands would become nature reserves.

The company would sell the legacy easement for $10 million, and the reserve lands for $25 million to The Nature Conservancy, which would likely seek federal and state grants to help pay. The sales will happen only if the company’s rezoning plan is approved, according to Plum Creek.

Critics of Plum Creek’s plans say easements that limit future development are a good thing, but do not balance out the loss of wildlife habitat and other impacts from resorts and subdivisions that they say are misplaced and too sprawling. And, they say, the list of allowed uses waters down the value of the easements.

A total of six lodges, or back country huts, could each cover 5,000 square feet and be four-stories tall, for example. Three are allowed in each of the two easements.

“It’s not that something like this is necessarily bad,” said Kathy Johnson, North Woods project manager for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. But, Johnson said, “it is significant development. We don’t know where they’ll be.”

Opponents also say the easements don’t give the state enough authority to make sure Plum Creek and future owners practice sustainable forestry and protect wildlife.

Some of the language in the easements, for example, promises the landowner will consult with the state on management issues.

“Consultation may be better than nothing, but it certainly does not ensure the forest will be properly managed,” said Johnson.

Some state officials also want more enforcement authority.

A memo written in December by Assistant Attorney General Amy Mills concluded that the easements mostly give the state the ability to provide advice. “As currently drafted, this office has significant concern about the value and enforceability of the conservation easement,” Mills wrote.

State and federal wildlife agencies have said in written testimony that they negotiated changes in the easements last fall that would guarantee more conservation and public benefit. Plum Creek, for example, is promising to create an advisory team of government biologists who would meet once a year and provide guidance to the company.

With some more minor changes, the Plum Creek proposal “will offer Maine significant plant and animal conservation benefits and assurances in perpetuity as well as a continued tradition of access for hunting, rapping and fishing,” according to written testimony from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

One of the additional changes that government agencies are calling for, however, is to give the advisory team more influence in planning and management. Without it, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “the success of the easements in providing for conservation of natural resources may be considerably less.”

The company and groups involved in the agreements say they allow for strong enforcement and guarantee protection of a region that is otherwise sure to face gradual development pressure.

“The development is going to happen up here absent a plan,” said Luke Muzzy, project manager for Plum Creek and a Greenville resident. “It has been and I don’t know why it wouldn’t continue.”

Exceptions that would allow some uses of the conservation land were all included because of regional needs and requests from the community, not any plans that the company has, Muzzy said.

The Appalachian Mountain Club recommended the huts exception, for example. Other uses, such as septic spreading and telecommunication towers, are included so that the easements don’t create hardships for area communities .

“This easement’s in perpetuity and it’s so big and you have communities that depend on this land and if you don’t try to think out as far as possible, you’re really limiting some of the things that can happen,” Muzzy said.

James Kraft, Plum Creek’s general counsel, said the agreements already have strong language that would guarantee the company and future owners stick to the promises. “There’s no doubt the easements are fully enforceable,” he said.

The advisory team of government biologists, he said, will provide an additional way government biologists can collaborate with the company. “It was not meant to create a new regulatory body that has control. But it was meant to create a platform for constructive dialogue,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy, which would be the holder of legacy easement, is confident that the agreement would be enforceable, said Mike Tretreault, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine.

Tetreault also said the organization supports allowing limited uses so surrounding communities aren’t put in a bind. “The biggest threat ecologically is intense residential and commercial development,” he said. “And this easement definitely extinguishes those things.”

One of the biggest issues facing the Land Use Regulation Commission is whether to take into account all of the proposed land conservation or consider only the 91,000-acre “balance easement” when deciding whether to approve Plum Creek’s rezoning plan.

Critics want the “legacy easement” and land sales to be considered private side deals because Plum Creek would get paid for them, partly with public funds. At the same time, all 430,000 acres hinges on approval.

“Is that or is it not part of the (rezoning) plan? The jury’s out on that. We’re still taking that into consideration,” said Catherine Carroll, executive director of the land use commission. “That’s still a big question that’s out there.”

It’s possible that the commission might never answer that question. If members of the commission decide that the development side of the plan is not needed or too harmful, the issue of balance would be pointless.

It’s unclear if the conservation plan or any pieces of it would be salvaged if the development project dies. It’s certain, at least, that the cost of the deals would go up.

Those involved in the deals say an opportunity to protect such a large area of the Moosehead region won’t come again.

“If you walk away from this concept plan, you walk into a whole lot of uncertainty,” said Tetrault. “And there hasn’t been a lot of talk about what’s plan B.”

By John Richardson
Blethen Maine Newspapers

Morning Sentinel

13 January 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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