`IT'S a spiritual place. I can smell the mysteries of the moss.''
``I remember rafting down the Penobscot - gurgling near the riverbanks - seeing osprey, moose, red squirrel.''
``What we need to do: Buy massive amounts of land for ecosystems. We need a national park, national forest. You can fly over Maine and not leave a clear-cut in half an hour. The game is over. The forest is mostly gone.''
These are the picturesque but sometimes urgent words of Patty Gamborini, Maggie Brazalius, and Charles Fitzgerald, respectively, New England residents who voiced their views on the state of the Northern Forest at a recent public hearing held in Boston. Eighteen similar hearings have been held throughout the Northeast over the past two months.
The forest encompasses 26 million acres of mostly private lands (85 percent) from the Maine coast across northern New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York almost to Lake Ontario. It is home to 1 million people and is one of the largest expanses of continuously forested lands in the United States.
Some environmentalists say the forest is in danger from excess development, overlogging, and other poor forest management practices. As a result, its future is the subject of debate.
For the past four years, the Northern Forest Lands Council - a Congress-appointed body comprised of a US Forest Service representative and four governor appointees from the states involved - has studied the forest.
The council recently published its findings in a report titled, ``Finding Common Ground,'' which outlines 33 recommended incentives and regulations that encourage a balanced approach to managing the forest and the economic, environmental, and recreational needs of its inhabitants and visitors.
The recommendations call for action by Congress, state legislators, governors, and other agencies on: property taxes, public land management and acquisition, federal and state tax policies, biological diversity, outdoor recreation on private and public lands, and private forest land stewardship.
Also: forest practices, market development, rural development through forestry, education and technical assistance, workers' compensation insurance, government regulations, and land conversion and forest status research.
The public comment period on the council's recommendations ended Monday. After considering the input it has received, the council will meet this summer to finalize a plan that will then be submitted to Congress and governors of the four states having land in the Northern Forest.
Loggers, mill workers, farmers, and businesspeople in the forest region have, of course, a huge stake in the outcome of any management plan designed for it. Several of these people attended the Boston public hearing.
Many environmentally concerned citizens at the hearing commended the council but said the report did not go far enough.
THE moderator received some boos when she interrupted speaker Ted Reid to say that he had strayed from the subject when he asked for protection along the Maine-New Brunswick border of the breeding area of the eastern panther.
Linda McElroy, another speaker, stressed the dichotomy of the forest issue. ``I have 41 acres in Maine. I bought the land to preserve it - wetlands, meadows, a moose family.... Which hat should I wear? My [environmentalist] hat or my traditional American, I-can-do-what-I-want-with-my-land hat?''
Some speakers charged the council with, among other things, failing to convey the urgency they saw in protecting the forest from clear-cutting and herbicides. They urged the council to set up a group to monitor implementation of its recommendations.
Like a few other speakers, Peter Heller compared logging practices in the forest to overfishing New England's Atlantic waters. ``I think there's an analogy here,'' he said. ``I recognize the importance of jobs and the local economy, but the practices mentioned in this report ... are they sustainable?''
Rainier Lucas, who has been going up to Millinocket, Maine, since the early 1940s, commented on the heavy logging he's seen while flying over the area. ``The cutting has changed profoundly in the last five to 10 years.'' The result, he said, has been lost jobs. ``The people in Millinocket are leaving. You read it in the Katahdin Times, which is printed in Canada on Canadian paper.''
The majority of speakers seemed to come down on the side of less- or better-managed cutting. They used terms such as ``wanton destruction'' and ``state of emergency'' in describing current forest practices and the condition of the forest itself.
One speaker, Philip Kafarow, of the Sierra Club, went so far as to encourage a virtual return to pre-colonial, pre-development days, saying: ``We disagree that preserving the status quo is the goal. Pre-European conditions should be the benchmark.''
According to the council, forest-related jobs (including logging, manufacturing, tourism, and others) account for an annual payroll of more than $3 billion. Tourism alone employed almost 115,000 Northern Forest residents of the four states between 1987 and 1990, the years the council studied.
Bointin Glidden, who ships Northern Forest products for a living, advocated moving with caution. ``We must harvest wisely to maintain long-term and short-term profit,'' he said. ``There was no mention in the report of the impact of forest products outside the region - thousands of jobs are at stake.''
Frederick King, a resident of Coos County, N.H., where that state's portion of the forest is located, said the people who live in his county are happy with the way the forest is managed. ``But the 35,000 in our county are a little paranoid about our 70 million neighbors,'' who live within a day's drive and, therefore, can easily visit the Northern Forest for recreation, he added.
The Northern Forest council's roots date back to 1988, when Diamond International Corporation sold a 1-million-acre tract of forest land to developers and other concerns.
Though the final disposition of the land did not end up much different than in the past, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) and then-Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, noting the risk of change possible, asked Congress to initiate the Northern Forest Lands Study.
Guided by a four-state governors' task force and the Forest Service, it recommended in 1990 the creation of the council.