Clear-Cutting: a Cloudy Issue in Maine

Voters will have a say next month on the future of state's forests

Like a spark in the tinder-dry forest, the issue of clear-cutting has ignited burning debate in Maine. "It's destroying our forests, Ban it!" cry clear-cut opponents. "That's bad forestry. It would ruin our economy," counter supporters.

The arguments are passionate. But the debate won't be decided within legislative walls. Instead, voters will have the final say about the future of Maine's l7-plus million forest acres, more than 90 percent of which are privately owned. On Nov. 5, they will be able to answer two questions: Do you want to ban clear-cutting? Or, do you want to promote "sustainable forest management" and allow - but strictly regulate - clear-cutting?" Voters may also choose a third option on the ballot: none of the above.

Whatever the outcome, a decisive vote here on one of two options could be precedent-setting. Though other states such as Oregon and California have tried to get similar measures on the ballot, Maine is the first in the nation to actually do so. And, while controversy surrounding clear-cutting on public land in the Northwest has made the spotted owl famous, Maine is the only state where voters will decide what restrictions are fair on this much private land.

It was more than one year ago that Maine Green Party activist Jonathan Carter launched the campaign to ban clear-cutting on more than 10 million acres of forest land in Maine's northern territories. Disillusioned by failed attempts to pass logging legislation, he turned to a citizen's referendum to halt a practice he believes is destroying forest health and wildlife habitat. After collecting 58,000 petition signatures, he won approval to get a referendum on November's ballot.

Some environmentalists oppose ban

Initial polls showed a majority of Mainers supporting the ban, but that changed once the forest industry began a media campaign against it. In July, a state study predicted the ban could cause the loss of 15,000 jobs and lower state economic output by more than $1 billion. Some environmentalists called the ban extreme and said it would outlaw many good forest practices.

In an unexpected move, Maine's largest landowners and two leading environmental groups developed an alternative. Supported by Gov. Angus King, the "Compact for Maine's Forest" recently won legislative approval to appear on ballots alongside the clear-cut referendum. The less-stringent compact would apply throughout the state, would establish a special audit program, and is supported by a coalition of industry, business, and environmental groups. Opinion polls show the compact now leading the clear-cut ban by more than 20 percent, though up to 30 percent of voters are still undecided.

Of the two proposals, the clear-cutting ban contains the most stringent restrictions on wood harvesting. In addition to eliminating cuts larger than half an acre, the clear-cut ban would limit cutting to one-third the volume of wood per acre each 15 years, eliminate pesticide use, and require a minimum wood volume remain after harvesting.

To justify these regulations, Mr. Carter says that 2 million acres of woods have been clear-cut and 20,000 miles of roads built in the last 10 years, a 30 percent loss in acreage of spruce and fir forests since 1982.

Ban supporters also point out that large-scale clear-cutting, begun in the 1970s, was in response to outbreaks of spruce budworm, which damaged massive areas of the spruce-fir forest. Many feel that it continued beyond what was necessary to salvage damaged wood.

But Peter Triandafillou, chief forester for a Maine timber company, James River Timber, and state chair of the Society of American Foresters, disagrees. He says the clear-cut ban addresses only specific forest practices and not sustainable forestry - that is, forest management that supports the continued health of the entire ecosystem.

A supporter of the compact proposal, he says the ban would encourage huge partial harvests, more roads, and high-grading - taking only the very best trees.

John McNulty, vice president of Seven Islands Land Company, which manages a 1-million-acre woodland recognized or "certified" as environmentally well-managed, is also opposed to the ban. He estimates his company would have to harvest more often from a larger area and build 75 to 100 percent more roads each year, to access the same amount of wood.

Possible sellout to developers

According to Rob Bryan, forest ecologist for the Maine Audubon Society, more roads would contribute to increased sediment in rivers and streams and adversely affect water quality and wildlife. He believes, as do some environmentalists, that strict harvest regulations could cause landowners to give up forestry and sell to developers. Given that possibility, he would rather see the land used for sustainable forestry - which, he believes, the compact promises.

As for the compact, it would reduce the amount of clear-cutting allowed, but not ban it. It would also set aside forest reserves and establish a program to evaluate forest practices. If enacted, the audit program would be the first in the nation and, supporters say, a model for other states. Its strength, say proponents, is that audit standards - which will address water and soil quality, wildlife habitat, and fragile ecological sites - will be developed by a board made up of landowners, environmentalists, and scientists. "It will give [all stakeholders] a say in how these forests are managed," says Mr. Bryan, "something I never thought possible only a year ago."

But Ken Cline, professor of environmental law at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and volunteer Sierra Club leader, is skeptical. "We have no reason to trust the industry based on its past behavior. Without some extreme constraint we don't believe it is going to change."

To others, however, the fact that industry, the state, and environmentalists are talking is a positive development. "Unless we can find ways to work together, the forest practices debate will remain adversarial," says Andrea Colnes of the Northern Forest Alliance. "That is in no one's best interest."

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