Maine Governor's plan to increase timber harvest to 180,000 cords, use revenue to pay for residential energy efficiency programs, wins support of utilities, but environmental groups say proposal threatens sustainability of state's forests

AUGUSTA Maine , March 25, 2014 () – Environmentalists and energy companies are lining up on opposite sides of a bill by Gov. Paul LePage to increase the state's timber harvest and use the new revenue to pay for residential energy efficiency programs.

The plan would slowly increase the public timber harvest from last year's 115,000-cord ceiling to 180,000 cords. The new revenue would be given to bolster Efficiency Maine's rebate programs, which help Mainers install alternative heating sources such as heat pumps and high-efficiency wood and wood pellet stoves.

Environmentalists say they support efforts to increase energy efficiency but oppose LePage's plan to cut more trees from roughly 400,000 acres of state land. Environmentalists also say the move would threaten the sustainability of the state forests and undercut years of successful conservation and management.

Revenue from timber lands traditionally goes directly back into the Bureau of Parks and Lands, which is self-funded. Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine says that's where the money should stay.

"While [the Bureau of Parks and Lands] has managed our public lands in an exemplary fashion, there has not been enough money generated to do all the timber improvement, infrastructure, wildlife and recreation activities that would be in the public interest," Johnson said Tuesday during a public hearing on the bill. "There is no unneeded money at [Bureau of Parks and Lands] that is available for diversion to other purposes."

Similarly, the Nature Conservancy, an international nonprofit conservation group, testified that diverting up to $1.25 million from the Bureau of Parks and Lands to Efficiency Maine -- as the bill envisions -- would leave the bureau "hamstrung, as it would have trouble meeting the needs of the public."

The plan is supported by several utilities and others in the energy sector, including Summit Natural Gas, Emera Maine, Maine Energy Systems, Maine Natural Gas and the Maine Pellet Fuels Association. The bill also has the support of the Maine Forest Products Council and the Maine Association of Building Efficiency Professionals.

Supporters told lawmakers Tuesday that the proposal would be good for their businesses and for Mainers who endured some of the lowest temperatures in recent years this winter.

"This winter, especially, has highlighted the dire straits people find themselves in, in the struggle to stay warm and keep their pipes from freezing," said David Allen, who represents Maine Natural Gas. "Many of them can't afford the minimum payment to have oil delivered or the fee for an emergency delivery and resort to space heaters of various types, many of which can be unsafe for extended indoor use."

The Agriculture Committee will hold a work session on the bill Wednesday.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.


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