AFTER three years of study, a report has been released outlining possible strategies for the future of the Northern Forest.
Advocates on all sides of the issue say the study's recommendations present an opportunity to avoid the polarization that has erupted in the Pacific Northwest.
The Northern Forest is a 26-million-acre tract of wilderness that blankets the northern sections of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. During the 1980s it became the subject of intense debate over changes in land-use practices and ownership.
Until the '80s, private timber companies owned large parcels of the forest, often selling holdings among themselves. Much of this land was accessible to the public for recreation. But rising land values helped fuel hostile corporate takeovers in the timber industry.
In 1988, international investors bought Diamond International, a timber concern, and then put 1 million acres up for sale on the open market. Developers snatched up much of the land, sparking concerns about the growing loss of public open space along rivers, lakes, and other scenic areas. Competing interests
While global competition from other timber-producing areas are causing job losses, environmentalists say increased clear-cutting and pesticide use threatens the health of the forest.
``The Northern Forest's way of life is in jeopardy,'' Sandy Nealy of the Maine Audubon Society said in a statement. ``We need a strategy that protects jobs, forests, and wildlife all at the same time.''
Congress authorized a task force to study the issue between 1988 and 1990 and then in 1990 funded the Northern Forest Lands Council to develop recommendations for the region. The council includes representatives from environmental, landowner, local, and state government interests in each of the four states, as well as a member of the United States Forest Service.
The council's mission is to promote the traditional land-use patterns of the forest, which include both public and private ownership, and at the same time create economically stable communities, maintain sustainable forestry, and protect open land.
Its first report, released last week, lists findings and more than 100 proposals, including:
* Creating a system of biologically based ecological reserves on public, private, or a combination of public and private land. Presently only 16 percent of the land is publicly owned as parks or reserves.
* Establishing a pool of funds to assist the start-up of sustainable natural resource-based businesses.
``We hear repeatedly that lack of capital is one of the roadblocks for small businesses trying to get started in the Northern Forest area,'' says Catherine Johnson, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
* Exacting tax penalties from speculators for quick turnovers in property in order to discourage conversions.
* Developing an alternative method for funding education. Currently, the four Northern Forest states rely more heavily on property taxes to fund local services, especially education, than the national average.
Landowners complain that high property taxes force them to sell their land. Finding other ways to fund education would decrease the pressure to sell, Ms. Johnson says. Ongoing forum for issues
In the next month the public is encouraged to offer feedback on the options. The council will then issue draft recommendations and hold public hearings in January. It will submit a final report to Congress over the summer.
The council's report includes ``the major themes that are critical to the future of this region,'' says David Miller, northeast regional vice president of the National Audubon Society.
In the Pacific Northwest, the issues were only ``addressed once it really reached a crisis stage, and the spotted owl became a focus of the debate,'' says Esther Cowles, resource specialist with the Northern Forest Lands Council.
``What we in the Northeast are trying to do is address the issues and seek some solutions while there's still an environment of cooperation,'' she says.