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Common Ground Found In the North Woods

Foresters and conservationists collaborate on preservation proposals

Milt Baston is a Maine woodcutter concerned about his job's future. Ogden Small laments that the forest he knew as a child is gone, replaced by large clear-cuts, chemically treated pine stands, and a massive road network. And Amy Cox calls for a halt to development in the north woods because, says the 11-year-old, development "would make for short-term gain and long-term loss."

They are all concerned about the Northern Forest. Stretching from northeast Maine through New Hampshire and Vermont to New York's Adirondacks, this 26 million-acre expanse is the largest forested area in the Eastern United States. More than 5,000 miles of rivers, thousands of lakes and ponds, scores of mountains, and hundreds of plant and animal species make this one of the richest natural areas in the country; it is also home and a way of life for 1 million people.

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But that richness and those lifestyles are being threatened by rapid development, forest mismanagement, and steep job loss. In response, an extraordinary public-private partnership has drafted a series of recommendations, some of which are embodied in federal legislation being voted on this month.

Since 1970, forest-products manufacturing jobs in the four states have declined by 13 percent, erasing nearly 17,000 jobs as mills relocated out of state and raw logs, rather than processed timber, were exported overseas. Meanwhile, large-scale clear-cuts and heavy use of herbicides have left many parts of the forest in poor condition. In the last decade, 20 percent of the forest land has been sold for potential development.

These are the issues that moved Ms. Cox, Mr. Baston, and thousands like them to participate in a nearly decade-long public effort to protect the Northern Forest - 85 percent of which is privately owned - while still supporting such forest-based economies as manufacturing, recreation, and tourism.

Among the most immediate and farthest-reaching proposals designed to help the region is the Northern Forest Stewardship Act, federal legislation introduced last year by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and co-sponsored by Republican Senators James Jeffords of Vermont, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and Olympia Snowe and William Cohen of Maine. Praised by Northern Forest advocates as an excellent start on solving problems in the region, this bill would provide federal assistance to states to:

Organize forest-product marketing cooperatives. This would promote value-added industries such as milling.

Establish goals for long-term forest management.

Establish a Northern Forest Research Cooperative to coordinate economic and scientific research.

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Improve safety and training programs for timber workers to reduce forest-company costs.

Acquire land and conservation easements, using the Land and Water Conservation Fund, to protect significant natural areas.

Protect landowners who open their property to the public from liability lawsuits.

According to Senator Leahy, the bill follows directly the recommendations of the Northern Forest Lands Council (NFLC), the congressionally funded group representing landowners, environmentalists, state agencies, and communities from all four states.

IN 1994, this group published its report, "Finding Common Ground," which contained 37 recommendations for action by private interests and industry and by state and federal governments. Although council members had their differences, all agreed that theirs was a valuable collaborative effort, one that they hoped would prevent the type of logger-versus-spotted-owl controversy that has been endemic in the Pacific Northwest.

It is in this cooperative spirit that the council's recommendations have been received in Congress. According to Leahy's staff, the Northern Forest Stewardship Act, as well as the companion House bill, has strong bipartisan support, a fact that is particularly noteworthy given the deregulatory mood of the Republican majority in Congress.

"The legislation embodies the conservation ethic of the 1990s - nonregulatory incentives and assistance to realize community-based goals for sustainable economic and environmental prosperity," said the senator when he introduced the bill in August. "The rights and responsibilities of landowners are emphasized, the primacy of the state is reinforced, and the traditions of the region are protected."

Leahy says the bill should be voted out of the Senate Agriculture Committee (chaired by Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana) by the end of the month. He's optimistic that the legislation will pass the full Congress by unanimous consent and be ready for President Clinton's signature this summer.

And that, says Mark Bettinger of the Sierra Club , would make it one of the only pro-active pieces of environmental legislation to come out of the 104th Congress.

It's a carefully crafted initiative, says Andrea Colnes, staff director of the Northern Forest Alliance (NFA). Its strength is that it is not a "federal fix," she says, but a state-federal partnership that would give people in the region the opportunity to solve problems for themselves. The NFA coalition of 28 regional, state, and national organizations includes the Sierra Club.

The most important element of the act, according to Ms. Colnes, is the funding and technical assistance it would provide to acquire lands (from willing sellers only) that citizens in each state identify as needing protection. The NFA has already identified 10 such areas, saying that permanently protecting these wild lands is critical for wildlife habitat, recreation, and "inspiration."

There is no organized opposition to the Northern Forest Stewardship Act, something Colnes attributes to the fact that environmentalists and industry representatives participated in the planning process from the start. Both the NFA and landowners have proposed clarifications, however.

On the forest-industry side, Roger Milliken says the Stewardship Act as drafted is a step in the right direction, but ambiguous. He is president of the Baskahegan Company, which owns and manages 108,000 acres of Maine forest, and a board member of the Maine Forest Products Council. He represented landowners on the NFLC.

The draft act also "left some in the environmental community fearful that nothing would happen," Mr. Milliken says, "and landowners fearing that the federal government would play too great a role in land-use decisions, which are best left to the states. Landowners agree with the Northern Forest Alliance on their overall goals, but we want to see the language in the bill tightened to clarify the federal government's role." The wording of the bill is still being made final.

MILLIKEN stresses that in order for the stewardship act to reach its full potential, Congress also must pass the Family Forestland Preservation Tax Act, which addresses NFLC recommendations on tax policies. Milliken says that the tax changes - such as reducing estate taxes for landowners, particularly those passing land from one generation to another - are needed to support long-term forest ownership. This also keeps land in timber production, he says, as opposed to its being sold for development. This is a critical point for landowners as well as those who oppose development.

Although realizing all these goals for the Northern Forest will take years, all interests agree that federal action is a critical next step. Some say that if federal and state governments do not act soon, support for more controversial proposals, such as banning clear-cutting (Maine citizens will vote on such a referendum in November) and a Maine Woods National park will grow. (See story, right.)

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