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Endgame for the Northern Forest?

Gridlock between contending interests is dimming the once-bright promise of an innovative blueprint for the stewardship of 25 million coveted acres from the Adirondacks to Maine.

Three years ago I described the dramatic events reshaping the Northern Forest of New England and New York as "a true story of yuppie robber barons, an English knight, governors and senators, scientific studies, and riotous hearings where 'Mr. Cougar' and 'Ms. Owl' testify alongside corporate officers." (see American Forests May/June 1990).

It was a "tale still unfolding," I said in the spring of 1990, warning that there were some very tough questions yet to be answered by the people of the region. And I predicted that if we failed to respond to those critical issues soon, we would be "handing our future to knights and knaves who know well the present market value of our heritage." Today, I can add, time is clearly running out for the region and its people.

The issues in 1993, as then, are political hot potatoes. Sparked by the sale of former Diamond International Corporation lands in 1988--lands acquired in a 1982 hostile takeover by Sir James Goldsmith--Congress and the four state governors involved quickly launched a major study and established the Governors' Task Force. Spurred on by predictions that the Diamond lands breakup was just the beginning of a domino-like collapse of the existing land-ownership pattern of large private forest-products corporations, government and private organizations joined in an unprecedented joint effort.

While there were calls by some for immediate large-scale public land acquisition, most of those initially involved in the newly formed Governors' Task Force were convinced of the need to find a new policy context for addressing the controversial, complex, and rapidly changing issues in the region. They believed that new context had to be an innovative public-private cooperative approach. Neither the old citadel-style National Park model nor Adam Smith's arthritic invisible hand with its myopic vision offered a clear view into the future. We were optimistic that there was a better path.

But crafting a viable public-private approach proved more daunting than anyone had imagined. Though the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Forest Study team and those of us on the Governors' Task Force were able to forge a "shared vision" of the need to protect the long-term integrity and traditional uses of the vast forest area, the road to that vision proved rough indeed.

When the Northern Forest Lands Study report was released in 1991, it was a virtual encyclopedia of land-conservation and regional-development strategies. Hundreds of experts, local and state leaders, and concerned citizens had participated in hearings, workshops, and conferences to contribute ideas to the Study managers. The result was a dizzying array of schemes intended to find some common ground between calls for outright public acquisition and industry's fear of regulation. Various tax reforms linked to landowner agreements on land use, creative use of conservation easements and limited acquisition of development rights, and an array of economic incentives within some sort of "green line" were explored. It was a hopeful report lauded by most key groups in the region for its far-sighted vision and sensitivity to the diverse and intertwined public/private interests involved.

But like the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, only a few pointed to a fatal flaw in the final reports of the Northern Forest Lands Study (NFLS) and the Governors' Task Force (GTF).


Though there had always been a tacit understanding that the NFLS would only assess the situation and explore a wide range of options appropriate to solving the perceived problems, we had always hoped that a few clear options would emerge. Further, most who served on the GTF understood that once the NFLS was completed, our role would be to recommend specific policies to our respective states and eventually to Congress. Some of us even believed that this could possibly lead to a creative new model for land management and protection within working landscapes applicable nationwide--a new public-private cooperative approach. How wrong we were.

Our naivete was first apparent at meetings of the GTF following public hearings on the draft NFLS report in early 1990. Our task was to recommend revisions in the draft (based on what we had heard at hearings) to be incorporated in the final NFLS report, and to prepare policy recommendations to be included in the GTF report for implementation of selected NFLS strategies. As reported in my 1990 article, we examined a list of likely recommendations, including a package of economic incentives linked to various land-use agreements between states and private owners to be applied within a designated "green line," clear policies for significant public land acquisitions, and creation of a regional council to replace the GTF as the organization to direct further studies and with oversight authority for land acquisition and allocation of federal funds.

We never got off the ground. Every attempt to designate any form of "green line," recommend public land acquisition other than for small tracts of significant natural areas, or to establish an interstate commission with any effective authority was blocked by Ted Johnson of the Maine Forest Products Council, supported by Commissioner Ed Meadows of the Maine Department of Conservation. Under clear threat from Maine forest industry and their allies in Maine government that they would not agree to any GTF report with policy recommendations linked to a "green line" or including a strong interstate council, the Task Force caved in. With Maine lands being the bulk and heart of the Northern Forest, there seemed to be no way to move ahead without support of that state's leadership.

The final report of the GTF mirrored the NFLS Report in its lack of policy direction. In the interest of keeping Maine at the table, the GTF simply ignored the tough decisions essential to establishing the institutional and policy frameworks necessary to begin implementing the best ideas in the NFLS Report. The GTF took a fatal middle-of-the-road stance, and then passed the buck to its recommended predecessor, an ill-defined Northern Forest Lands Council. And as anyone in the Northern Forest knows, the only things in the middle of the road are a yellow line and a dead woodchuck.


There's a lot more to the story since those fateful decisions in 1990. But it's worth a pause here to remember what this Northern Forest represents. By any measure it is a region of truly national significance, a vital part of America's natural heritage. This fact is often lost in the heat of battle between corporate egos, property-rights advocates, and environmental crusaders at the state and regional levels. The national public interest is sacrificed and even forgotten.

If nothing else, the Northern Forest is a huge chunk of the American landscape, some 25 million acres in four states--larger than all the National Parks in the lower 48. From Maine's eastern coast, across the northern mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, and on through the Adirondacks, it is mostly a private forest. Even including the huge Adirondack Park, only one-fifth of the area is public land. As the map shows, most of the land area and the least percentage of public land is in Maine, the domain of the large forest-products industries whose uncertain future as landowners sparked the whole controversy in the first place.

This is the vast boreal forest of spruce and fir, with a patchwork of hardwoods and conifers to the south. Lakes and rivers abound, interwoven with diverse ecosystems supporting significant areas of vital wildlife habitat and the cleared lands of thousands of small farms and rural residents. And all that within a day's drive of 70 million people, many of whom dream of their private retreat on their own private piece of the region--a dream that until recently was escalating land prices above those justifying ownership only to grow trees.

Some predict that the lull in land speculation during the Bush recession is just about over, and that economic recovery will soon renew pressure on forest industry to rethink its extensive ownership of forest land in the region. Some add that we have squandered our chances to prepare for these new pressures during that brief lull, and wonder if the once-bright promise of the Northern Forest Lands Study has been lost in gridlock between contending special interests. The proposed Northern Forest Lands Council seemed to be the last best hope.


With the idea of a regional council barely intact in their final report after Maine's last-minute sabotage, the Governors' Task Force again sought the help of Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont to keep the Northern Forest effort alive. Leahy had been the key person in gaining the support of Senators Rudman of New Hampshire and Mitchell of Maine for the original funding of the Northern Forest Lands Study. Leahy seemed to be one of a few people in New England who understood the national significance of the Northern Forest issue. As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he was able to include authorization for continuation of the Northern Forest Lands Study in the 1990 Farm Bill Forestry Title and to gain appropriations of $1.075 million to support inventory work by the states, the proposed Northern Forest Lands Council, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Most importantly, he also proposed the "Northern Forest Lands Act of 1991" to provide Congressional authorization and policy direction for the Northern Forest Lands Council, a valiant attempt to keep alive what he believed to be an important regional effort in the national interest--a belief not shared by the corporate forest-products interests in Maine.

Public hearings on the bill were as riotous as those on the NFLS draft report a year earlier, and a lot uglier. Property-rights advocates picketed hearings in Maine and Vermont, responding to suggestions by industry leaders that massive public purchases of land and excessive regulation of private land would be the price for creating a strong Northern Forest Lands Council (NFLC). In New York tires were slashed and bull's-eyes painted on Adirondack Park Agency staff cars, requiring state troopers to keep watch over another hearing in New York. The John Birch Society, so-called "wise use" property-rights groups, and a local version of Earth First! exchanged press releases blaming everyone from Marx to Muir for the controversy.

The often theatrical exchanges seemed to substantiate the belief of many informed policy analysts in the region that these demonstrations were not directed specifically at the proposed Northern Forest Lands Council or at Leahy's bill. Some were an extension of battles over the future of ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest and tensions from private land regulation in the Adirondacks, while others were a general reaction of small landowners during a recession.

Some of us involved in early skirmishes over the Northern Forest Lands Council suspected that many of these demonstrations were part of a concerted effort to keep any Northern Forest policy initiatives in the back court while the clock ticks. For some in industry and among "wise-use" reactionaries, the NFLS was nothing more, it seemed, than a convenient ploy to thwart park advocates, overzealous land planners, and potential takeover schemes.

Regardless of motives, the result was another deadly blow to those seeking a regional approach. In response to special-interest pressure, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine withdrew his support for Leahy's bill, ending efforts to empower an effective Northern Forest Lands Council.

Discouraged but undaunted, the soon-to-expire Governors' Task Force advised the governors to appoint members to the NFLC and to move forward on the basis of Congressional appropriations to the Council, a not uncommon way to claim authorization even though there was no legislative definition of the NFLC.

The NFLC was thus born, albeit a bit illegitimate. Of the 12 original GTF members, only four are appointed to the new NFLC. Some former GTF members asked not to be appointed, because of other commitments or loss of faith in the process, and others were casualties of gubernatorial elections. Of the original conservation-organization representatives on the GTF, only Paul Bofinger of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests remained. The new NFLC includes some effective and respected regional leaders, but they must rely in great part for any institutional history on two people who were most determined to keep the Council impotent.

During 1992 the NFLC established several working subcommittees under the direction of a full-time executive director, conducted hearings, and issued bimonthly newsletters. Its published material makes it very clear that the NFLC is "not a regulatory agency, . . . . has no authority to regulate land uses or other activities, . . . is not a government agency, and . . . cannot and will not acquire land." It defines its task as "continuing the work of the Governors' Task Force and the Northern Forest Lands Study through September 1994," when it will go out of existence.

Though the NFLC claims to be the heir and champion of the vision set forth by the GTF, some of its critics believe that it has a much narrower vision "to simply (be) a mechanism to reinforce traditional ownership patterns." In response to the NFLC's draft 1992 Interim Status Report, 19 member organizations of the newly formed Northern Forest Alliance sent a letter to the NFLC's chairman and executive director urging them "to reestablish a comprehensive context for the Council's work for the coming year to address the full charge given by the (Governors') Task Force, the Northern Forest Lands Study, and the Congressional Record."

NFLC Chairman Bob Bendick, a respected natural-resources professional, is adamant that the Council will set forth clear "policy recommendations and strategies to enhance the natural and economic integrity of the Northern Forest, and to reinforce the traditional patterns of land ownership and uses" to "be forwarded to the Congress and affected states for action" by the time the NFLC expires in 1994. Many conservation leaders doubt he can deliver on that pledge. They doubt the time or will is there to address complex property-rights and land-valuation issues needed to implement a cooperative model, especially in an emotional climate where adversarial positions have hardened. The enormous economic and jurisdictional complexities will, most believe, overwhelm the NFLC, given its vague authority, limited resources, and self-constrained mission.


With increasing indications of regional gridlock on the Northern Forest issue, over two dozen state, regional, and national conservation organizations have banded together in a loose coalition: the Northern Forest Alliance (NFA). Representing the full spectrum of environmental organizations from Preserve Appalachian Wilderness (PAW) to the Society of American Foresters (SAF), members retain the right to sign off on any policy statements, as was the case with the December 1992 letter to NFLC cited above. Nevertheless, the Alliance has an impressive list of members including the largest regional and national environmental groups (including AMERICAN FORESTS)--organizations becoming increasingly impatient with the NFLC.

While most NFA members remain committed to the principles and vision expressed in the reports of the NFLS and the GTF, there is increasing enthusiasm for a new effort to advocate large-scale public land acquisition as the core feature of a Northern Forest Lands strategy, an idea with considerable popular support even in Maine. In December, 15 NFA member organizations called for acquisition of over 600,000 acres at an estimated cost of $100 million. David Miller of the National Audubon Society said, "It is up to our government leaders to provide funds to lead a historic course for the natural and cultural future of our northern forests."

Other members of the NFA are expected to endorse this proposal as their governing boards act. Other regional and national conservation organizations are expected to lend their support as well.

Some NFA leaders believe this new effort will gain support rapidly as post-recession land markets heat up and national attention focuses on the region. Many of the lands targeted in the December proposal are now being marketed or are likely to be on the market soon. NFA officials intend to attract attention by drawing on the substantial resources and likely influence of their national offices in the new, environmentally friendly Clinton Administration. If they can elevate the debate to the national level, they believe it will be possible to break the log jam created by the Maine forest-products industry and end the regional gridlock. Many people in the region fear that time is running out, and that the NFA may be our last chance.

Whether the future lies in regional cooperation through a revived Northern Forest Council or in a national campaign for a Northern Forest reserve, park, or national forest, one thing is certain: Enlightened, courageous leadership will be the key, and many are looking again to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont to fill that role. Only through his fast action in 1988 was the Northern Forest Lands Study made possible. Recently reelected and with a seasoned staff who know all the players, Leahy can be the statesman who makes all the difference.

And it will require genuine statesmanship. There never will be a broad regional consensus. Not within the Northern Forest Lands Council or the Northern Forest Alliance, and surely not among the contending special interests in Maine. Taking the Northern Forest into the national spotlight will require old-fashioned courage that believes doing the right thing is justification alone.

The last chapter of the Northern Forest saga still remains to be written. And the knights and knaves who test our spirit and tenacity are still poised to cash in on our forest heritage if we fail.

FOOTNOTE: As a footnote to my 1990 article on the Northern Forest, I reported that I had the pleasure, as a justice of the peace, of marrying two young staff members of the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Forest Lands Study team, Laura Falk and Ted Rankin. I am sad to say that Ted died last year after a valiant battle with cancer. How we miss his youthful energy and spirit. We are all working a lot harder to fill the void and to ensure the future of the forests he loved so much.

Carl Reidel, a professional forester, is past president of AMERICAN FORESTS and a vice chairman of the National Wildlife Federation. He also directs the University of Vermont's environmental program.


Members and Staff


Jerry Blow (*)Edward Johnston Janice McAllister (*)C. Edwin Meadows Donald Mansius State Coordinator


(*)Paul Bofinger John Harrigan Beaton Marsh John Sargent Susan Francher, State Coordinator


Robert Bendick, NFLC Chair Robert Stegemann Barbara Sweet Neil Woodworth Karyn Richards, State Coordinator


Richard Carbonetti (*)Peter Meyer Conrad Motyka Brendan Whittaker James Horton Charles Johnson State Coordinators


Michael Rains

Council Executive Staff

Charles Levesque, Executive Director Esther Cowles, Resource Specialist Mary Beth Hybsch, Administrative Assistant Office: 54 Portsmouth St., Concord, NH 03301, Tel: (603) 224-6590

(* indicates persons who served on the original 12-member Governors' Task Force, 1988-1990)


(*)(#)Adirondack Council (*)AMERICAN FORESTS (*)(#)Appalachian Mountain Club (*)(#)Appalachian Trail Conference (*)(#)Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (*)(#)Audubon Society of New Hampshire (*)Conservation Law Foundation Environmental Air Force (*)Green Mountain Club (*)(#)Main Audubon Society (*)(#)National Audubon Society (*)(#)National Wildlife Federation (*)Natural Resources Council of Maine New England Society of American Foresters (*)(#)New Hampshire Wildlife Federation (#)Natural Resources Defense Council Preserve Appalachian Wilderness (#)Restore: the North Woods (*)(#)Sierra Club Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests Student Environmental Action Coalition The Nature Conservancy (VT) (*)(#)The Wilderness Society (*)(#)Trust for Public Land (*)Vermont Land Trust (*)(#)Vermont Natural Resources Council

(* signatories to the 12/1/92 letter to the Northern Forest Lands Council.)

(# signatories to 12/23/92 call for public acquisition of 600,000 acres of Northern Forest lands, as of 12/25/92. Others are expected to sign as they secure authorization from their governing boards.)
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Title Annotation:forest management controversy on Northern Forest of New England and New York
Author:Reidel, Carl
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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