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Plum Creek 'loopholes' weaken plan

With nearly 1,000 house lots and an even larger number of resort accommodations, Plum Creek’s Moosehead Lake proposal stands as the largest development plan ever submitted to Maine regulators.

Yet the 20,000 acres Plum Creek is seeking to rezone for development represent just 5 percent of the total acreage in the company’s plan. The remaining 430,000 acres – covering an area nearly two-thirds the size of Rhode Island – would be protected permanently through a combination of conservation deals.

But like nearly every aspect of Plum Creek’s historic proposal, the “conservation framework” is complex and increasingly controversial.

Communications towers, mining operations, wind farms and backcountry huts all would be allowed within areas of the conservation zones.

Critics contend that allowing such activities weakens the value of the conservation and conflicts with public perception of what it means to “permanently protect” land.

“We want to see the conservation be real conservation and not have all of these loopholes,” said Cathy Johnson, the North Woods project director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Supporters of the conservation framework, meanwhile, say none of those activities is unusual in large-scale land protection deals in working forests. Moreover, they predict Plum Creek’s current proposal could be Maine’s best chance – and perhaps the last chance – to protect hundreds of thousands of acres around Moosehead.

“The big question … is what happens if they don’t put a large-scale concept plan in place. What is the alternative here?” Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, said recently. “If they deny the Plum Creek plan, that is not going to stop development.”

The Maine Land Use Regulation Commission is expected to begin delving into those issues as early as Friday as the regulatory agency trudges on with its unprecedented review of Plum Creek’s plan.

The issue is sure to come up Saturday during the final public comment session on Plum Creek, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Greenville High School.

When Plum Creek unveiled its plan in the spring of 2005, the company was flooded with feedback from Mainers who wanted to see more permanent conservation. The company responded a year later by announcing a package that would conserve about 430,000 acres in the following way:

ä 91,000 acres would be donated by Plum Creek to offset, or “balance,” the development. Plum Creek would own and harvest on the land, but the conservation easements would be held by the Forest Society of Maine.

ä 266,000 acres would be protected through working forest conservation easements held, at least initially, by The Nature Conservancy. These are known as the “legacy easements.”

ä Roughly 74,600 acres around the Roach ponds and the No. 5 Bog would be sold to The Nature Conservancy, which plans in turn to sell some of the Roach lands to the Appalachian Mountain Club.

The current plan has critics, however.

Plum Creek stands to make $35 million from the latter two agreements, which were negotiated privately but are contingent on LURC approval of the development plan. That has angered some critics, who accuse Plum Creek of trying to lure LURC and Maine residents into supporting the company’s housing and resort plans.

But the biggest regulatory fight may be over what activities will be allowed within the conservation zones.

Up to six telecommunications, cellular and radio towers would be permitted within the conservation lands to support forestry operations, emergency communications and potentially to expand service to local communities.

Plum Creek or subsequent landowners would retain the right to mine for gravel to support both forestry needs and new developments.

The 266,000-acre “legacy” easement also would allow wind farms to be sited on the land with approval from both LURC and the easement holder.

The wind farm provisions were inserted into the easement at the suggestion of AMC, which is already a major landowner in the Moosehead region.

David Publicover, AMC’s senior staff scientist, said many sites in the region likely would be inappropriate for wind farms because of impacts on scenery. But AMC has identified a number of sites on Plum Creek land that could be suitable for wind power, he said.

“We thought it was important to retain the option,” Publicover said. “If the state is going to be encouraging wind power, we want it to go into the most appropriate sites.”

AMC, which has criticized aspects of Plum Creek’s development plan, also requested language that would allow up to three “backcountry” huts that would become part of the organization’s hut-to-hut trail system.

But the size of the hypothetical huts – each with a maximum footprint of 5,000 square feet and up to three stories tall – bothers some intervenors.

Plum Creek and the easement architects also have included provisions to allow the spreading of septic waste on up to 100 acres within the conservation zones. Supporters say such provisions were necessary because existing communities will be “boxed in” by the conservation zones.

All of that potential activity in land zoned for conservation bothers some groups.

“In a nutshell, the conservation easements are being proposed to offset development, and it doesn’t make sense that you would offset development with more development,” said Bob Guethlen, a member of the intervenor group Moosehead Region Futures Committee.

Guethlen, a resident of Tomhegan Township, and Johnson with NRCM said Plum Creek should restrict such activities to the 20,000-acre development zone.

“All of these activities we talked about are legitimate activities,” Johnson said. “But they are not conservation activities and they should not be part of the conservation balance.”

State officials also have expressed concerns about aspects of the conservation easements.

Assistant Attorney General Amy Mills took issue with language that she said would prevent the easement holder from receiving financial damages for violations on the land. Mills reviewed the agreements because the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands is listed as the backup holder of both the “balance” and “legacy” easements.

Furthermore, the language would force the holder to reimburse Plum Creek for the costs of any unsuccessful enforcement case. Mills predicted such language would have ” a severe chilling effect on the state’s ability to enforce the terms of the easement.”

“As currently drafted, this office has significant concern about the value and enforceability of the conservation easement,” Mills wrote in a memo submitted to LURC.

Supporters maintain that the massive scope of conservation achieved through the suite of agreements – encompassing an area twice the size of Baxter State Park – far outweighs the effects of those activities.

Hutchinson with the Forest Society of Maine said allowable uses within conservation zones are really a public policy question that LURC must grapple with after considering community needs.

The Forest Society of Maine is not pushing to include the activities in the easements, but their presence does not substantially detract from the value of the conservation, Hutchinson said.

“None of these are really out of the ordinary,” Hutchinson said. “They are the types of issues that you would expect to have to be met when you [protect] land next to communities. And they can be met in several ways.”

By Kevin Miller

Bangor Daily News

18 January 2008