May 18, 2022

State lawyer pans West Branch deal Yale University revealed as one of owners

The state Attorney General’s Office has joined the chorus of skeptics who question whether Maine is getting its money’s worth with a proposed conservation easement covering hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland around the West Branch of the Penobscot River and Moosehead Lake.

The easement, as now written, puts too much emphasis on forestry and not enough on land conservation, Assistant Attorney General Jeff Pidot wrote recently in a memo to the Land For Maine’s Future board, which has allocated $1 million to the project.

The document favors the landowners’ interests over those of the state, which is buying the easement, Pidot warned.

For example, the state’s recreation plan for the land must be approved by the landowner, while the state has no right to approve the landowner’s forest management plan.

Further, the state is obligated to pick up garbage on the land while the owners would be allowed to extract gravel and to build electric generating facilities there.

“Forestry may be a permitted use of lands held by some conservation organizations, but it is not typically their primary purpose,” Pidot, chief of the attorney general’s natural resources division, wrote in a memo the Bureau of Parks and Lands and the Land for Maine’s Future board earlier this month. He was asked by the bureau to review the draft easement to see if it met the state’s objectives.

He criticized the easement almost from its opening paragraph, which lists as the first objective the land’s continued use as “productive timberland.”

He also said the document is weak when it comes to prohibiting development and ensuring public access to the land.

Because the West Branch project is so large – the largest conservation easement in history – the language in the document is of critical importance because it will not only govern the use of a huge swath of Maine land, it will set precedent for similar efforts, Pidot said.

The details of the proposed easement are particularly troubling to some critics because a major owner of the land is Yale University, a fact unknown to the Land for Maine’s Future Board and the public until this week.

The West Branch project, which is being done in two phases, aims to place a conservation easement on 656,000 acres of timberland north and west of Moosehead Lake. It also includes the state purchase of seven miles of shoreline on the northeastern side of the lake, as well as 4,200 acres surrounding Big Spencer Mountain southeast of Moosehead. The project, which is still in the negotiation phase, is expected to cost more than $50 million.

The easement, which would restrict development, would be held by the Forest Society of Maine, a Bangor-based organization with a board of directors heavily weighted with timber company executives. The state would manage the recreational use of the land.

The society, parks bureau and landowners are currently negotiating the easement for the first phase of the project. Forest Society officials did not respond to phone calls Wednesday.

Unknown landowners

The state, through the Land for Maine’s Future board, has already committed $1 million and the federal government has allocated more than $13 million. The money was advanced before the easement document was finalized and without public knowledge of the parties behind the holding companies that own and manage the land.

The land is owned by Great Northwoods, LLC and Yankee Forest, LLC, and managed by Wagner Forest Management.

A 1998 filing with the Internal Revenue Service shows that Yale University owned 99 percent of Yankee Forest, LLC, which has the same address in Lyme, N.H., as Wagner Forest Management. Yale’s investment in the company was valued at $24.3 million, according to the IRS form.

A spokesman for Yale University said Tuesday it was the school’s policy to not comment on its investments and ownership of property.

“There is way too much at stake here to keep this hidden in the dark recesses,” said Jym St. Pierre, the Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods, a group that has advocated for the creation of a Maine Woods national park and preserve.

St. Pierre has long been critical of the process surrounding the easement negotiations for being too secretive. He and others have filed numerous requests under the state’s Freedom of Access law to obtain copies of drafts of the easement. St. Pierre said it was astounding that the state and federal government would commit millions of dollars to a project without knowing what they were getting for their money.

Others have shared his criticism.

“I would not normally spend millions of dollars on something without knowing what I was getting for the money and without knowing if that was a fair price,” said forestry advocate Mitch Lansky of Wytopitlock. “The easement as written seems more like a subsidy than a purchase of public values.”

Lansky, a well-known critic of the state’s forest policies, is especially concerned that the easement does not specify how the timberland should be sustainably managed. In fact, the easement says the landowner’s forest management plan must remain confidential and is not subject to approval by the state.

The only specific reference to the amount of wood harvested in the easement proposal says that an average of 14 cords per acre should be left behind on the land. The state average now is 16 cords per acre, according to the latest Maine Forest Service inventory. In New Hampshire, it is 26 cords per acre, Lansky said.

“What is being ‘protected’ is not the forest, but continued logging with a few significant restrictions,” he concluded.

These concerns are shared by Assistant Attorney General Pidot.

“While I recognize the basic premise of this transaction that forestry-related uses of the property will be retained by the landowner, the primary purpose of a conservation easement, especially one that is purchased, is usually more focused on conservation objectives,” he wrote.

He suggested that the word “sustainably” be added to a section of the easement that stipulates the land will remain in use as “productive timberland.”

Pidot also balked at the notion that the state would have no oversight of the landowners’ forest management plan and that the plan would remain confidential.

Working land trust

The West Branch easement is being negotiated, in large part, by an organization with strong ties to the forestry industry. The Forest Society of Maine was established in 1996 specifically to hold an easement on timberland owned by the Coburn family in northwestern Maine.

From the beginning, the group’s focus was to maintain large chunks of working forestland, its director, Alan Hutchinson, said in an interview earlier this summer.

“The board, quite deliberately, was chosen to have people with ties and connections to the land preservation world and the land ownership world,” he said.

Seven members of the 16-member board work for or have strong ties to forestry and paper companies. Five have conservation ties.

Unlike other conservation groups, the Forest Society, aims to protect the practice of cutting trees while also preserving important tracts of land, Hutchinson said.

“If people believe purely in … preservation and never want to see a stick of wood cut, we’re not the organization for them,” he said.

Many in rural Maine near the West Branch project are supportive of the huge easement because they see it as a way to preserve jobs as well as the land they use for recreation. The Maine AFL-CIO has endorsed the project for this reason.

An easement is preferable to a national park, said John Willard, owner of The Birches Resort in Rockwood, because the land will still contribute to the local economy. It will provide timber harvesting jobs and taxes will continue to be paid, he said earlier this summer.

If a large national park is created near Greenville, it won’t address the region’s economic concerns, Willard said. In addition, activities like snowmobiling and walking with dogs would be limited.

As for the quality of forestry practices on the land, Willard said that as long as the landowners pass “one of those green programs” people would be satisfied.

He suggested such programs be like the one Irving Woodland passed. Half of Irving’s holdings in Maine have been certified as well managed by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international body applauded by environmentalists and some large companies.

While the most current draft of the West Branch easement makes reference to certification, participation in such programs is not required of the landowners.

Some standards to ensure responsible forest management should be included in the easement, said Roger Milliken, a member of the Land for Maine’s Future board and president of Baskahegan Co., a major landowner in Washington County.

“If the public is looking at paying a landowners tens of million of dollars to protect public values … that ought to be the price of admission,” he said in an interview earlier this summer.

He said easements on working forestland should contain some guarantees that the timber will not be liquidated and that the forest will continue to produce usable timber in perpetuity.

The lax nature of the forest management standards in the easement is troubling to some because a large owner of the land in question is home to one of the most highly regarded forestry schools in the country.

Jym St. Pierre said it was odd that as an academic institution Yale teaches the principals of sustainable forestry, yet as a landowner is driving a hard bargain with the state so as not to be held to the standards of sustainable forestry.

“There’s something ironic about that,” he said.

Forest Society of Maine board of directors

John Albright, Kennebec River Fly and Tackle Co. Inc.

Jerry Bley, Creative Conservation

Dan Corcoran, Great Northern Paper

Dave Edson, James W. Sewall Co.

Jonathan Ford, Huber Resources Group

Matt Hancock, Hancock Land Co.

Sherry Huber, Maine TREE Foundation

Sally Jacobs, Orono Land Trust, retired University of Maine professor

John Kauffmann, former National Park Service planner

Ralph Knoll, Bureau of Parks and Lands

Peter Ludwig, retired from Champion International

Bucky Owen, University of Maine wildlife professor

Elizabeth Swain, Barton & Gingold

Roy VanVleck, The Lyme Timber Co.

Rick Warren, Bangor Daily News

Henry Whittemore, Hancock Timber Resource Group

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