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The Northern Forest: our last best chance.


Many a tall tale has come out of the great north woods of New England and New York. But this one's for real. Even the tales of Paul Bunyan are tame by comparison. This is 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.

It's a tale still unfolding, with the ending up in the air. And though it's the story of a northern forest with colorful names recalling an earlier time, it is truly every forest's story. The answers to the tough choices now being debated in far-off places like the Maine woods and Vermont's Northeast Kingdom may well reshape our thinking and laws about forests nationwide for a long time to come.

The central question is, to adapt a line from Robert Frost, "Whose woods are these?" Who will own them, and who will decide their future? To answer these questions, an amazing cast of characters are locked in debate, if not battle. And so far, the only agreement among them is that this will be our last best chance to achieve the shared vision of protecting the long-term integrity and traditional uses of this vast forest area.

This "shared vision" was crafted about a year ago by a U.S. Forest Service study team, working with a special task force appointed by the governors of Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont, after a series of hearings regionwide. Their draft study report warns that "the road will not be smooth. There will be compromises and sacrifices. In pursuing any common vision, saving some things usually means losing others, so the choices may be particularly tough."

And tough the choices have become. Should private land be acquired by the states or federal government? How much? Where? For a national forest or a national park . . . or some new kind of national reserve? What economic incentives are reasonable to assist large corporations to maintain forest ownership? What rights should these corporations yield in return? Should the four states form a permanent regional commission to oversee further studies and land-use planning? On and on.

But we're getting ahead of the story. First, something about these lands and what sparked the present debate.


Spread over 25 million acres, the Northern Forest is larger in area than all the national parks in the lower 48 states. It reaches from Maine's most easterly coast, through northern New Hampshire and Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, across Lake Champlain and into the Adirondacks of New York. It includes almost 75 percent of Maine and a third of New York.

Much of this vast northland is boreal forest of spruce and fir, with a patchwork of hardwoods and conifers as you go south: white pine and hemlock, black spruce and white cedar, balsam fir, maple, beech, birches, ash, and basswood, in a rich array of mixed forest types. Lakes and rivers abound, many remote and undeveloped, providing a wealth of recreational opportunities for many of the 70 million people only a day's drive away in the eastern United States and Canada.

By every measure a national heritage, these north woods are biologically diverse ecosystems with significant areas of critical wildlife habitat. But they are a very human, working forest as well. Producing nearly 25 percent of the manufactured goods shipped from the northern New England states, this forest provides jobs with some of the world's largest forest-products companies.

This is also a very private forest, with less than one-fifth of the area in public ownership (over half of that in New York's Adirondack Park). Less than six percent of the vast Maine woods is publicly owned and that in the most forested state in the nation. Much of the land is in very large private holdings of 50,000 acres or more. Forest-products firms hold most of these large tracts, making up nearly half of all private lands in the area. These industry holdings are mostly in the unorganized townships of Maine, where there is no local government and very few residents. Another third of the area is in large ownerships held by people or firms that are not in the paper or sawmill business.

This is the domain of the nation's big-business forest-products industries with forestlands and mills nationwide. The biggest forest land-owners include Great Northern Paper Company with some two million acres, International Paper with a million, and nearly seven million acres owned by another dozen or so firms including such prominent companies as Georgia-Pacific, Boise Cascade, Champion International, and Scott Paper.

Here's where the story warms up. So much so that the numbers and names in the last paragraph may well have changed by the time the ink dries on this page.


The first warning that change was about to sweep the northern forest came in late 1982 when Sir James Goldsmith acquired Diamond International Corporation. An English knight notorious for bold takeovers, Sir James dismantled much of the company in two years, doubling his money, but hanging on to the 1.7 million acres of timberland previously owned by Diamond nationwide. The million or so acres in the northern forest were put under the management of Sir Goldsmith's new firm, Diamond Occidental Forest.

Though a few conservation groups were concerned enough to attempt to talk with Goldsmith, to no avail, most people in the region hardly noticed the change. After all, large blocks of land up in that forest-clad area had changed hands before with little impact on jobs or public access to the forest.

Former American Forestry Association President Perry Hagenstein, a nationally known forest economist from Boston, wasn't so sure that this was business as usual. With a small grant from the New England Natural Resources Center, Hagenstein took a hard look at the economic forces that could bring change to the northern forest. In a concise and forth-right report issued in 1987, Hagenstein sounded a clear warning: "Changes in ownership and use of the large forest holdings are already occuring, and more changes are likely... The increasing spread between the value of this land for timber growing and for recreation and development puts pressure on current owners."

He explained what Wall Street and Goldsmith already knew, and what many foresters and Northern Forest residents failed to understand: "The large holdings, more than ever before, are viewed as profit centers by their owners and are expected to earn returns themselves that justify continued ownership." This, he warned in appropriate Yankee prose, would "mark a sea change in forest ownership in northern New England." With a combination of thin soils, short growing seasons, and ever-increasing management costs, he concluded, "It does not appear that forestland in northern New England has a positive value for timber production." Its value is increasingly as real estate, with even higher values for recreation, tourism, and development.

The doubters barely had time to question Hagenstein's report when events proved him right. The Knight confirmed the Yankee Economist's prediction. In early 1988 Goldsmith's Diamond lands, almost a million acres, were up for sale. Several states and conservation groups made unsuccessful bids for key tracts. Ninety-thousand acres in Vermont and New Hampshire went to developer Claude Rancourt, with over half eventually being acquired by the states working with The Nature Conservancy and Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, with a hefty appropriation from Congress to finance easement purchases. Some 96,000 acres in the Adirondacks were sold to land speculator Henry Lassiter of Georgia, with 55,000 acres eventually acquired by New York in a combination of development-right purchases and direct buys. Most Maine lands went to other forest-products corporations - James River and Frazier Paper - with a small piece acquired for public ownership.

When the smoke cleared, some 100,000 acres had been protected in three states at a cost of about $25 million. Not everyone was pleased with some of the deals involving easements and limited rights purchases, but just about everyone knew that the Northern Forest would never be the same again. Hagenstein's "sea change" was real. The transformation had begun.



In the midst of the intense negotiations over pieces of the Diamond lands, conservationists regionwide were gearing up for the long run. Former AFA director and treasurer Paul Bofinger, president of the prestigious Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, took the lead, contacting private organizations, Congressmen, and state officials to seek support for public acquisitions in New Hampshire and for the regional strategy proposed by Hagenstein a year earlier.

In Vermont, I attended a meeting of conservationists with U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and urged Congressional support for a major study to help the states grapple with change in the Northern Forest. Leahy soon joined forces with other influential New England senators: New Hampshire's Warren Rudman and Maine's George Mitchell (U.S. Senate Majority Leader).

Vermont's Commissioner of Forests and Parks Mollie Beattie (now Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources), an AFA director, quickly mobilized her counterparts in other states and convinced Vermont's Governor Madeline Kunin to ask other northern New England governors to join her in forming a special task force and seeking Congressional support for the special study.

In one of the quickest and most co-operative responses by New England states since the Revolutionary War, a four-state Governors' Task Force (GTF) was appointed and a special $250,000 study was authorized by the Congress, to be conducted by the U.S. Forest Service in cooperation with the states. By mid-1988 three representatives from each state - the GTF - were working as the "board of directors" for the Congressional study being coordinated by former Green Mountain National Forest Supervisor Steve Harper.

Over the next year dozens of experts and hundreds of citizens, foresters, wildlife specialists, and local and state leaders worked together on special reports, at workshop and conferences, and at public hearings to assess the situation and consider the impacts of alternative strategies. Harper and his assistants, Laura Falk and Ted Rankin, traveled thousands of miles consulting with hundreds of people throughout the region to get their opinion.

The effort was fraught with controversy from the start. Congress had limited the study to the examination of alternatives and possible strategies, discouraging recommendations for specific actions. Some members of the task force and most environmental leaders wanted more - and said so at public hearings and at meetings of the Governors' Task Force. In October of 1989 the first draft of the Northern Forest Lands Study Report was released for public review and comment. Public hearings were scheduled into early 1990, with plans to finalize the report by early March. The tempo and the temperature of discussions picked up, even in the coldest December ever recorded in New England. "The road will not be smooth," the draft report warned - in perhaps its most accurate prediction.

Not long after the GTF began regular meetings, it was all too clear that the task force was grappling with principles that reached far beyond the immediate issues facing the Northern Forest. These are private lands in a region that honors property rights with revolutionary fervor, a fact that Maine GTF delegate Ted Johnston (of the Maine Forest Products Council) never let the GTF forget. He made it clear that any recommendations by the GTF for large-scale federal acquisition, as had been proposed by the Wilderness Society, or regional land-use regulations would be unacceptable to Maine. Other industry representatives on the GTF also preferred discussion of economic assistance to private owners, possible state purchases of limited easements, and other government incentives to maintain traditional patterns of private ownership and land use without public acquisition or regulation.

Hoping to find productive compromise, the GTF and Congressional study staff explored a wide range of innovative strategies: tax incentives coupled with landowner agreements on land use, landowner liability protection coupled with local land-use planning, and use of conservation easements and acquisition of development rights. GTF member Ross Whaley, president of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and several land-use planning experts encouraged the GTF to consider various "green line" strategies similar to those used in England and New York's Adirondack Park.

The flood of ideas and theories made for interesting discussions at GTF meetings, but one hard reality could not be ignored. Private property rights have real value, and corporate owners are unlikely to give up any of those rights for less than their full value. Recent public acquisitions had cost about $250 per acre. What is the value of rights yielded within a green line? Who will pay? How much? When? Meetings of the GTF became heated whenever discussion hit these bottom-line issues, with one meeting in Maine coming close to a meltdown. But GTF members backed off, falling back on old friendships rather than pressing the real issues.

The draft report of the Northern Lands Study reflected the GTF's stand-off. All options were explained, more study was called for, and action recommendations were avoided. Public hearings reflected widespread frustration with the report. Representatives of environmental action groups, some dressed as northwoods beasts, demanded public acquisition of large areas for biological reserves. Foresters and representatives of the wood-products industry denounced any recommendations for public acquisition, forest regulation, or "green line" designations of private forests.

Most groups lauded the report for providing, in the words of Tom Miner of the Vermont Natural Resources Council," a far-sighted common vision for the northern forest...founded on an appreciation and acknowledgement of the diverse, intertwined public and private interests involved." But few agreed on how to reach for that vision. In spite of growing rumors that Georgia-Pacific was bidding on Great Northern's vast forest holdings and that International Paper was negotiating to sell partial interest in its lands to Canadian and Japanese firms, these diverse public and private interests continued to bicker ... "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," as this author suggested at a contentious public hearing in Vermont.

At the first meeting of the GTF in 1990, following public hearings on the draft report, everyone was braced for a fight. With the help of a professional facilitator, the GTF forged a long "consensus list" of actions the task force would recommend as part of a comprehensive strategy. The list included most of the economic incentives and tax programs previously discussed, along with recommendations for further study of items that some GTF members felt were too vague to endorse outright. But whenever an attempt was made to gain agreement on the major issues of designating a green-line interstate region, or public land acquisition other than for small tracts of significant natural areas by individual states, positions hardened.

On the issue of creating some sort of interstate commission to continue the work of the GTF, every attempt to moved ahead failed. Maine refused to accept the proposal put forth by the other states until "details were spelled out." The inevitable happened; consensus on the important issues seemed impossible. Only a last-minute agreement to meet again in a few weeks saved the GTF from dissolution.

Before that meeting, newspapers nationwide reported that Great Northern had agreed to a $5 billion buyout by Georgia-Pacific, ending a hostile takeover fight and creating the nation's largest forest-products company. The avalanche of change was continuing.

On March 1 the GTF met again to review its final report, and for a last attempt at compromise on the creation of a continuing interstate organization. After lengthy debate, the GTF agreed to a proposal put forth by the Maine delegation for a scaled-down version of the earlier proposal for a commission. A "Northern Forest Lands Council" was to be recommended to the governors, with advisory and study authority to continue the work of the GTF for four years. Perhaps the most important task assigned to the new council is to designate the lands in the Northern Forest that will be eligible for special incentives and for study and acquisition funds. This designation will serve as a possible forerunner of a green line.

The Northern Forest Lands Study Report, accompanied by the Governors' Task Force recommendations, will have been revised and sent off to Congress and the governors by the time you read this. Whether Congress responds with necessary dollars and legislation, and whether the new Northern Forest Lands Council can make headway on the tough issues still unresolved remains to be seen.


The last chapter of this saga remains to be written. The unanswered questions seem overly simple, but that's often the nature of significant decisions. Perry Hagenstein called what is happening in the Northern Forest a "sea change," another way to describe an historic transformation. Put simply, Whose woods are these? Sure, the constitutions of these once-independent New England colonies and the Constitution of the United States make it clear that those who hold the deed own the land. But who decides what rights come with that ownership? Does the public, or yet unborn owners of the future, have any right to limit the decisions of present owners? Do the real cougars, if any remain in New England woodlands, have any say in all this? Does anyone have a right to speak for them?

As a member of the Governors' Task Force, I believe that every one of my colleagues on the task force knows that these are the real questions. If the new council and the people of New England fail to answer them in the best interests of all the people, we will be handing our future to knights and knaves who know well the present market value of our heritage.

PHOTO : Less than one-fifth of the Northern Forest is public land like these White Mountain woods.

PHOTO : During public hearings, "Mr. Wolf" dramatized environmentalists' call for public ownership of forest lands.

PHOTO : Task force member Paul Bofinger heads the highly respected Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forest.

PHOTO : Heated hearings like this one in Burlington reflected high feelings among citizens.

PHOTO : Vermonters Charles Johnson and Peter Meyer go over a point with Mollie Beattie at a task-force meeting.

PHOTO : Author Carl Reidel present an insider's view of the north woods controversy.

PHOTO : Of 25.8 million acres in the north woods, 21.8 million are privately owned, while only 4 million acres are currently in public ownership.

Carl Reidel represents Vermont on the Governors' Task Force on Northern Forest Lands and is a director and past president of AFA, a trustee of the New England Natural Resources Center, a director of the National Wildlife Federation, and a University of Vermont professor of environmental policy and public administration.
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Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Whose Woods Are These?; includes related information
Author:Reidel, Carl
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1990
Previous Article:Mr. Bush and his billion trees.
Next Article:The forest that will be saved.

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