GREENVILLE – Maine would have to attract an additional 11.6 million tourists a year to make up for lost timber revenues if a national park were created in the North Woods, Department of Conservation Commissioner Ron Lovaglio said at a forum here Thursday.
Last year, 4.3 million people came to Maine for recreational overnight trips. Two-thirds of them spent their time on the coast, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.
Lovaglio was one of five panelists at a forum organized by the Maine Woods Coalition, a Greenville-based group that seeks to maintain the status quo in the North Woods, primarily by stopping the creation of a national park. A Massachusetts group, RESTORE: The North Woods, has proposed the creation of a 3.2 million-acre park and preserve that would encompass the Moosehead Lake region as well as land to the east and west.
The forum, which was part of the town’s Forest Heritage Days activities, was billed as a discussion of conservation easements, but much of the talk focused on fears that a national park would be created over the objections of local residents. About 70 people attended the forum.
As for a park, Lovaglio let the numbers speak for themselves. The forest products industry contributes $5.6 billion annually to the state’s economy, he said. Dividing this by the 17 million acres now in forestland means that each timberland acre generates $323 for the state’s coffers. If 3 million acres of this land were taken out of forest production to create a national park – where timber harvesting would be prohibited – the state would have to come up with $963 million from another source.
So, Lovaglio called the state’s tourism office and found that the average tourist spends $85 a day. To come up with the lost timber revenues, the state would need to attract an additional 11.6 million tourists a year, Lovaglio figured.
Lovaglio’s numbers are too simplistic, Jym St. Pierre, the Maine director of RESTORE, said Friday.
“I was appalled at the fuzzy math our public officials were batting around,” said St. Pierre, who attended the forum but did not speak.
He said calculating the economic impact of a 3 million-acre national park requires sophisticated models, not just calculating a per acre timber value and counting how many tourists come to the state.
RESTORE has hired a University of Montana economist to do such a study, but the results won’t be available until next month.
According to 1996 figures from RESTORE, a Maine Woods National Park would attract between 1 million and 3 million visitors a year and generate between $109 million and $435 million in annual sales. It would support between 5,000 and 20,000 jobs, according to the group.
Still, Lovaglio said, conservation easements make much more sense than government purchases of land.
“We really don’t need to own the land,” he said. “What we need to own are the values the public holds dear.” Those values include undeveloped land, especially ponds, that can be used for traditional recreation.
Easements allow this to happen while also keeping land in timber production and, therefore, contributing to the state and local economy, Lovaglio said.
Conservation easements have become an increasingly popular way to preserve land. Three years ago, Robbins Lumber Co. sold to the state the development rights on more than 20,000 acres it owns around Nicatous Lake, northeast of Bangor. At the time, it was the largest working forest easement in the state.
Since then, Pingree Associates, owners of the Seven Islands Land Co., sold an easement on more than 750,000 acres it owns in northern and western Maine. That easement is held by the New England Forestry Foundation and is the largest easement in the country.
The Forest Society of Maine is working with the state to secure an easement on more than 650,000 acres near the West Branch of the Penobscot River owned by two entities and managed by Wagner Forest Management.
Easements typically prohibit development forever and many guarantee public access to the land for recreational use. The three large easements in Maine also stipulate that the land will be used to grow trees.
Attendees of the forum were told repeatedly that each easement is different and that they are legal documents negotiated by the landowner and the buyer of the easement, usually the state or a conservation group. The public is not involved in the process, although the public can comment on easement proposals through the Land For Maine’s Future process and by talking with the Department of Conservation, Lovaglio said.
The West Branch easement, for example, seeks to accomplish five goals, said Leslie Hudson, assistant director of the Forest Society of Maine. The first is to prohibit development on the land and the second is to limit subdivision of the land so that it is maintained as large tracts that are better for forest management. Third, the easement stipulates that special values, such as endangered or rare species and scenic views, be protected. This means that tree harvesting could be restricted in certain areas to protect these values.
The easement, which is still being negotiated, stipulates that traditional recreational uses on the land are guaranteed forever. Finally, it requires the landowners to continue to use the land to grow and harvest trees while adhering to sustainability standards written into the document.
In response to a question raised several times, Commissioner Lovaglio said language could be written into an easement that the land could never be sold to the federal government for inclusion in a national park. Such a stipulation, however, would come with a price, he said, because it would eliminate a potential future buyer.
All of the speakers agreed that current easement efforts do not open the door to a national park.
“Easements diffuse the issue of public ownership,” said Paul Miller of the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine.
Paul Davis of Plum Creek Timber Co. said easements actually bring stability to the forestry industry and may make companies less likely to sell their land – including to the federal government – down the road.
If an easement is put on land, you know clearly what can and cannot be developed, he said. That allows a company to focus on forestry rather than worrying about which portion of their ownership could be better used for camp or house lots.
“I feel good about the future of forestry on those eased lands,” Davis said.
“The Friends of Moosehead Lake feel the biggest buck comes from easements not a national park,” said John Morrell, the owner of Morrell’s Ace Hardware in Greenville. The Friends of Moosehead Lake is a group of area business owners who have proposed putting a conservation easement on the whole area as the best means of maintaining the current way of life which is a mix of forest jobs and tourism.
A park would turn the region into the Winnipesaukee of the north, he said, referring to the crowded lake in New Hampshire. “The influx of people would be overwhelming,” Morrell said.
If the federal government ever were to acquire land along the West Branch that will be protected by an easement, it would be subservient to the state’s interests that are written into the document, Hudson said. For example, hunting and snowmobiling could not be restricted if the easement says they will be allowed. In addition, forestry could not be prohibited because the easement says the land must be used for that purpose.
Plus, a Maine Woods National Park isn’t likely to be created anytime soon, Lovaglio said, because the park service isn’t likely to advocate, or Congress appropriate money, for the creation of a park when area residents and the state’s congressional delegation are opposed to it.