Golden Rule Comes to the North Woods

Here are the remarks of Jon Lund -- avid and accomplished hunter and angler, Maine’s former attorney general and publisher of New England’s biggest outdoor periodical, the *Maine Sportsman* -- delivered to the board of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (at the board’s request) when it was considering what position to take on Plum Creek’s proposal. Too bad the board didn’t have the good sense to take his advice. Golden Rule Comes to the North Woods True Story. A young friend of mine once took a summer job selling encyclopedias door-to-door. The pay was small, but it was an opportunity to earn big bonuses if certain sales goals were met. My friend worked hard and exceeded the sales goals. He spoke to the sales manager about receiving his bonus. As the two examined his sales record, my friend learned that he hadn’t understood fully how the bonus rules worked. With the clarification in mind, my friend went back to work selling harder than ever, and exceeded the newly-clarified sales quota. My friend met again with his manager about receiving his hard-earned bonus, and was surprised to learn that he still wasn’t qualified f or the bonus. He took the news badly and accused the manager of changing the bonus rules. The manager responded by telling my friend, ”We go by the golden rule around here. The person who has the gold makes the rules.” Grand Plan I am reminded of this “Golden Rule“ story as I read about Plum Creek’s “Grand Plan” for the development of 427,000 acres of timberland in the Moosehead Lake region. According to the news release from Rick Holley, chief executive officer of Plum Creek, the second largest timberland owner in the United States, they plan to file an application with the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) early in 2005. According to news reports, 95% of the Plum Creek land which surrounds Moosehead Lake will be devoted to growing trees, with continued public access for recreation. LURC, has seen it’s budget and staff reduced by the governor and legislative budget-cutters over the years. LURC is supposed to issue a decision within 90 days of a hearing. The Plum Creek proposal, would, which would create 800 to 1200 new second home lots, is five to ten times the size of any previous development previously submitted to LURC. Especially in view of its limited staff, LURC should be given adequate time to fully consider all the impacts of such a large proposal. If that takes legislation, then the legislature should step in. 30 years and the Golden Rule Holley’s description of the proposal is that “Ninety-five per cent of the land is committed to long-term forest management and conservation, meaning no development for a 30-year period. “ (Emphasis added) So the question should be asked, “What happens after 30 years?” Holley says the company may review the plan again after 30 years. Thirty years is not a long span in terms of trees growing in the north woods of this state. The Golden Rule strikes again: the person who has the gold makes the rules. If LURC approves Plum Creek’s plan, hook, line and sinker, here is a prediction: After thirty years, more development is in store for these lands. We should also ask, “What about the hundreds of thousands of acres of Plum Creek land not covered by this grand plan?” We probably will not have to wait thirty years to see more subdivisions there. Corporations have a fiduciary obligation to shareholders to maximize earnings. This puts pressure on a company to get the biggest financial return from its assets. That means converting woodland to home sites, lodges, and other commercial developments. Maybe even a golf course right in the middle of our traditional wildlands. Blistering Pace It has been a little over a year since this column supported a feasibility study for a national park and preserve. Since then, the sales of large land tracts and easements have continued at a blistering pace, with at least a dozen more transactions completed or pending in 2004. Some seven million acres of land or interests in land have been bought sold or are pending in just the past six years in Maine. For details, note the accompanying box. The land Plum Creek proposes to develop is smack in the middle of land which has been proposed for a national park and preserve. There has been remarkably little discussion about the national park proposal. For years, critics of state and local efforts to carry out land use planning and zoning have complained that their land was being “taken” without compensation, and have proclaimed that if the government wants to control land use, then government should buy the land. It would seem logical for the recently appointed Task Force on Traditional Uses and Public Access to Lands in Maine to support a study of a national park or preserve as one of the options to guarantee public access. However, given the makeup of the governor’s task force, such support is not likely. For generations, the north woods were owned by paper mills or forest products companies or groups closely allied with them, but all that is changed within the span of a few years. Now, there are almost no lands in Maine owned by a paper manufacturer. More and more Maine land is being bought up by investment groups, often with anonymous shareholders. Opportunity Missed For years, while other states used federal funding sources to buy public land for hunting, fishing, and recreation, Maine did almost none of that. Instead, Maine used the federal funds to support the day-to-day operations of the Department of Inland of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. As a result, among the states, Maine has one of the lowest percentages of land in public ownership. We passed up the opportunity to purchase more public land, confident that our custom of allowing free public use of private land in our state would continue forever. It sure looks like “forever” is over. In recent years, Maine sportsmen have seen their traditional access to land for hunting and access to rivers, lakes and streams nibbled up by residential development, or “sprawl” in the southern part of the state. Now, thanks to Plum Creek, we are getting a glimpse of the future of the north woods: More creeping sprawl, and in the long run, loss of public access. Perhaps Maine hunters are put off by the idea that hunting is not allowed in national parks. The reality is that many different categories of land within the national park system would permit continued access for such traditional north woods activities such as fishing, hunting and snowmobiling. Some of the best hunting and fishing in this country is in or near federal preserves. This writer doesn’t know whether some combination of a national park or preserve would best save future access to the north woods for sportsmen and the public. However, we really ought to have a lot more public discussion about how we can best guide the future of the north woods, rather than let those decisions be made by real estate companies like Plum Creek, whose primary obligation is to maximize profit to their shareholders.