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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Maine Clearcut Referendum

Air Date: Week of

Maine voters struggle with the balance of the state's ecology and its economy in a ballot referendum next month. The ballot decides whether to ban timber clearcutting in the ten million acre region known as the North Woods. Susan Chisolm reports.


CURWOOD: The State of Maine has the lobster on its license plate these days, but maybe the pine tree would be more apt. Maine is the most heavily forested state in the nation, and this November voters there will decide the fate of a ballot measure that would ban clear-cutting in a 10-million acre region known as the North Woods. Some conservationists worry that paper companies are ruining the state's ecology. Opponents warn passage of the measure will ruin the state's economy. Maine Public Radio's Susan Chisolm sorts out the arguments in this report.

CHISOLM: When Basal Powers looks out the kitchen window of his farmhouse is remote western Maine, he sees large bald spots on a mountain that was completely forested 10 years ago. As much as the patches bother him, he says they're nothing compared to the massive cookie-cutter style clear-cuts visible from a nearby hillside.

POWERS: It looks to me like they're going to build a jet port here and they aren't going to have to cut a bush. It's already this jet port. You could put a jet port in there, look for yourself! And you wouldn't have to cut a sprout.

CHISOLM: A former logger and state legislator, Powers is now a member of the group Ban Clear-Cutting. Today he and colleague Greg Gerritt are getting a first-hand look at some of the logging that has taken place in Maine's unorganized territories, a 10-million acre network of forests, lakes, and streams, mostly owned by paper companies. Surveying the barren hillside, Gerrit is convinced that what he's seeing is the liquidation of Maine's greatest natural resource.

GERRITT: I would not be at all surprised if this was an illegal cut that was done since the Forest Protection Act, because this one goes right over the top of the hill, it goes as far as the eye can see. And then when you look out on the hills all around you, as far as the eye can see there's clear-cut after clear-cut after clear-cut.


CHISOLM: Maine's Forest Practices Act of 1989 was designed to halt the huge rolling clear-cuts of the early 1980s, when paper companies cut down hundreds of thousands of trees devastated by a spruce bloodworm epidemic. The rules limited clear-cuts to 250 acres, but Gerritt says the law is not working. That's why his group went out and collected 55,000 signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot. The measure would ban clear-cutting and prohibit landowners from taking out more than a third of the trees on any given acre over a 15-year period.

GERRITT: In a forest like this, which is predominantly hardwood and some mixed forest with, you know, fir and spruce, you would be selectively cutting through here and, you know, every 10, 15 years you could come back and do another selective cutting job. Whereas the areas that have been clear-cut, it's going to be a lifetime before anybody can come back in here.

(Motors and bulldozing continue)

CHISOLM: In New England's poorest state, the clear-cut ban quickly raised the jobs versus environment debate. Critics, including Governor Angus King, and a coalition of timber companies, mill workers, and business groups, warned the measure would drive a stake through the heart of Maine's already struggling economy. An analysis by the State Planning Office suggests that as many as 16,000 jobs will be lost along with $400 million in annual wages. Among those who worry about the effects of the referendum is logging contractor Reagan Pingree. He says he's prepared to lay off half his 17-man crew and unload his heavy equipment if the referendum passes.

PINGREE: The way we operate now and the way we're harvesting trees, and the way I've set to cut wood, you know, how long will I be able to cut wood the way I'm cutting wood?

CHISOLM: To head off the clear-cutting ban the state's major land owners, backed by Governor King, have placed a competing measure on the ballot. Called the Compact for Maine's Forests it would set up a voluntary audit program for large landowners and limit clear-cuts to 75 acres statewide. Governor King says his proposed Compact tightens existing timber harvesting regulations and promotes sustainable forestry.

KING: It gets our major land owners and the smaller land owners if they choose to start thinking long term, and to move themselves toward excellence.

CHISOLM: Governor King's compromise measure has split the state's environmental community. Leaders of the Natural Resources Council and the Maine Audubon Society say they support the governor's compact because the clear-cutting ban takes a one size fits all approach to forestry. They fear it will result in the practice called high grading, in which the biggest and most valuable trees are harvested and the less desirable wood is left standing. Thomas Urquardt of the Maine Audubon Society says the compact makes better sense to improve the condition of the woods through cooperation.

URQUARDT: This agreement goes beyond the jobs versus trees argument. It forges new relationships between stakeholders, so that we will all in future have a place at the table in deciding the future of Maine's forests.

CHISOLM: But Jonathan Carter, a leader of Maine's Green Party and executive director of the Ban Clear-Cutting group, calls the compromise a sham. He claims loopholes in the compact would double the number of acres allowed to be clear-cut. Carter is convinced that if current forest practices are not altered, the future of the Maine woods will be jeopardized.

CARTER: There's absolutely no way they can continue to harvest 2.1 million cords and ever expect the forest to catch up to sustainable level. The truth is that the forests of Maine are being heavily over-harvested, and one of the things that this bill will do, or referendum, will be to bring the cut down towards sustainable levels.

CHISOLM: Both sides accuse each other of distorting the facts. Carter says the state has over-inflated the number of jobs that will be lost with passage of the clear-cutting ban. Timber industry officials maintain that clear-cutting can actually enhance forest productivity by creating a new and healthy forest from the ground up. They've raised over $2 million, more than 20 times Carter's group, to get the message to Maine voters.

(Voice over: "Voting for 2B is the only way to decisively defeat the Green Party's referendum and protect our economy and our forests. Choose the positive alternative. Vote yes on 2B, the Compact for Maine's forests. Authorized and paid for...")

CHISOLM: After enjoying initial widespread support, momentum for the clear-cut ban has sputtered since the compromise was announced. Recent polls indicate that voters favor the governor's Forestry Compact by a 2 to 1 margin. But there is also a large number of voters who are still undecided. Some of them may choose yet another option on the ballot that would preserve the status quo in Maine's North Woods. With little time remaining before the election many appear confused about their options.

MAN: I pretty much knew what I wanted to do before, and I didn't want the Green Party idea in there, because I didn't think it was good for forestry. But now I'm kind of, I'm more confused about it now.

WOMAN: I can't remember how the referendum is worded.

MAN: All the smoke hasn't cleared yet as far as I'm concerned.

WOMAN: I am not quite sure about it, not quite clear about exactly what they're talking about.

CHISOLM: The November referendum may signal the beginning of a long-term effort to get Maine voters to see the forest through the trees. Carter says if the clear-cutting ban is rejected, his group will forge some other measure to protect Maine's woods. For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Chisolm.



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