BRUNSWICK, Vt.--Almost three years after a panel of 16 environmentalists, industry representatives and government officials drew up a landmark consensus statement on preserving 26 million acres of forest land in Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, a Senate Agriculture subcommittee will hold a hearing Thursday on a bill to implement some of the panel's key recommendations.
In addition to promoting federal-state collaboration on forest research, the Northern Forest Stewardship Act would authorize the federal government--if asked by one of the four states--to seek matching funds from congressional appropriators for the voluntary purchase of private lands. The money would come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is derived from offshore oil and gas leases. The fund has historically been used either to expand the size of existing federal land holdings or to provide matching funds for state efforts to build recreational facilities.
The bill builds upon the recommendations of the now-defunct Northern Forest Lands Council (NFLC), which was designed to be a collaborative panel in the wake of the spotted owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest. The bill failed in the House last year after it had unanimously cleared the Senate as an agriculture appropriations rider. This year, though, the measure has the unusual unanimous support of the four states' eight ideologically diverse Senators, plus more than 40 House cosponsors.
A key opponent--then-Rep. James B. Longley Jr., R-Maine--was defeated last fall by Rep. Thomas Allen, a Democrat who is cosponsoring the bill.
Moderate industry groups have indicated their support--but it was not an easy process, recalled preacher-farmer Brendan Whittaker, a Vermont NFLC representative, in an interview at his Brunswick, Vt., farm. Environmental groups, he said, were always the council's "spark plug," and industry officials, especially those from Maine, were "held on kicking and screaming. There were points where they wanted out."
Indeed, local property-rights activists remain skeptical. In an interview at his Bethel, Maine, furniture-parts mill, Y. Leon Favreau said he gave the original council report a "B+" but added that the subsequent legislation has deemphasized the economic concerns of the original report. "The materials in the bill are quite benign, but it sets up an atmosphere that [promotes] increased regulation, control and government ownership," said Favreau, who like Whittaker has been asked to testify Thursday.
Environmentalists "say nothing about wanting to annex lands, but the fact is, every time land is up for sale around here they want to buy it," said Gorham, N.H., selectman Mike Waddell. "In accepting that, you give up the right of self-determination, and someone far away can make a decision on how you live. If that worked well, we'd all have British accents now."
Proponents, however, insist that they do not seek a land-grab in a region where most lands are currently private. "The climate is pretty good for passing bills like this," said Ron Tipton, the Washington-based coordinator for the Northern Forest Alliance, a New England-based evironmental coalition that has been driving the legislation. "I think the Republican leadership is aware that its environmental record is not great, and this is an easy bill for them to pass."
The hearing, before the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Forestry, Conservation and Rural Revitalization, is scheduled to take place on Thursday at 2:30 in Room 328A of the Russell Senate Office Building.