Capitol Notebook: The forest and the trees

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Planted in the middle of Gov. Paul LePage’s State of the State address in early February was an unlikely comment about the supposedly imminent return of the damaging spruce budworm, which plagued the state’s softwood forests back in the 1970s and 1980s.

LePage’s worry about the spruce budworm was oddly discordant in a speech that centered on his plea to cut the income tax as a “path to prosperity.” The potential extent of any new outbreak is not universally agreed upon by Maine forest experts, who also worry about such threatening pests as the wooly adelgid and the emerald ash borer.

But LePage’s warning about a potential outbreak, and the need to cut more softwoods to prevent it, is meant to justify a controversial proposal in his budget that will increase timber harvesting in Maine’s public forest lands. His plan to place the Bureau of Public Lands under the Maine Forest Service will allow increased cutting on public lands, which are supposed to be managed for recreation and wildlife protection, as well as sustainable forestry.

The Bureau of Public Lands manages 700,000 acres of state-owned or state-controlled property, including the Nahkamanta Preserve, the Cutler Coast overlooking the Bay of Fundy, the Bigelow Preserve and the Kennebec Highlands.

LePage’s quest to squeeze more cash out of these forests began last spring, when he tried to use money from the timber harvest to support heating assistance programs. Legislators killed that plan, noting that statutes require that revenues from Maine’s public land timber harvest be used for Public Land programs.

In recent years, those revenues have been as much as $4.6 million. LePage is anxious to increase these revenues, and last year 165,000 cords were cut, despite an initial administration pledge to cut only 141,000 cords.

The plan to move the Bureau of Public Lands into the Forestry Department was attacked by environmentalists, trout enthusiasts and woodlot owners at a public hearing in late February. Critics said the plan would issue a blank check to exploit the public forest for other government programs.

“The public lands are not an ATM,” warned Catherine Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

LePage also wants to slash the number of forest rangers from 56 to 37, who would not have law enforcement powers. Instead, seven new positions would be created to handle enforcement of timber harvesting and other forest regulations throughout the state.

These seven would be the only ones authorized to act on diverse violations. Many feel that number is too small to be effective.

Pierce on privacy

A bill to prevent employers from demanding access to the social media profiles of job applicants has been advanced by Rep. Theresa Pierce, D-Falmouth. Pierce said her proposal stems from a concern about privacy in a rapidly intensifying social media landscape.

“My kids live in a much different world than I do on this subject,” she said. “I don’t think that an employer should be allowed to ask for a password and access the entire media profile of an applicant.”

Pierce said 15 states already have similar laws. The bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee, but no public hearing date has been set.

A first-term representative and former chairwoman of the Falmouth Town Council, Pierce said she is learning to enjoy the frantic pace of the legislative session. A group of Falmouth High School civics students recently toured the Capitol and attended hearings and even the usually private party caucuses.

“They were really impressed with the openness of the process we have up here,” Pierce said.

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Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.