Thursday, November 16, 2006

Report cites violations by Plum Creek

Maine Today
November 16, 2006

Plum Creek Timber Co., one of Maine's largest owners of forestland, repeatedly violated environmental standards in the years before 2003, the Natural Resources Council of Maine said Wednesday.

The advocacy group, which issued a report citing state records related to the company's logging practices, also said the company continued to destroy established deer habitat until early this year.

The report, which challenges Plum Creek's corporate image as a protector of Maine's environment, noted, for example, that the company paid a $57,000 fine in June for a series of logging violations from 1995 through 2002, by far the largest such penalty ever imposed in Maine.

"This is really a systematic avoidance of Maine's environmental laws," said Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council.

The group has been a leading critic of Plum Creek's plans for two resorts and about 1,000 house lots in the Moosehead Lake region. The company's logging record, Johnson said, indicates it shouldn't be trusted to develop sensitive areas in the North Woods.

Plum Creek's general manager in Maine, Jim Lehner, said the company has taken responsibility for its violations and works with the state agencies to avoid problems.

"Whenever an issue comes up, we address it immediately," he said. "We're proud of our record."

The company is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, he said. "Does it mean we don't make any mistakes? No, we do make mistakes."

The council's report focuses on improper clearcutting and other logging violations, and the destruction of crucial deer-wintering areas over the objections of state biologists.

The group also criticized the company for failing to get a permit before starting construction of a 7,500-foot-long powerline corridor near Moosehead Lake in 2003, and for altering stream beds near a logging road in 2002. The company cited a miscommunication and paid a $4,000 fine for the powerline violation, and it repaired what it said was unintentional damage to the waterway, according to the state.

The report also raises questions about how aggressively the state has regulated Plum Creek and whether state agencies have helped protect the company's image.

For example, a final news release from the Department of Conservation about the Plum Creek fine in June is missing a sentence from a draft that said the company was penalized $57,000. The final notice does not include the fine amount or otherwise indicate that the action was more than a routine technical settlement. Also, the word "clearcuts" in the draft was changed to "harvesting" and "harvests" in the final version. The action got little, if any, publicity at the time.

The leaders of several agencies that regulate forestry and land use in northern Maine said Wednesday that they have treated Plum Creek no differently than any other landowner.

"Nothing was done to accommodate or to alleviate Plum Creek's violations of the Forest Practices Act," said Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan. The information was available to anyone who was interested, he said.

The $57,000 fine imposed in June was in addition to a $9,000 fine the company paid in 2003 for a clearcut that violated the Forest Practices Act. The 2003 case led to a selective review of Plum Creek's logging practices back to 1995, the process that concluded in June with the $57,000 fine.

The review of the eight-year period found that Plum Creek violated the law at 48 previous harvest sites throughout its more than 900,000-acre property.

The discovery of so many past violations shows how difficult it is to monitor logging and enforce the law in a 10-million-acre forest, officials said. But it also shows that the Maine Forest Service did its job, said Director Alec Giffen.

Until June, the largest single fine imposed under the 17-year-old law was $19,500, assessed to International Paper in 1998 and Jay McLaughlin in 2001.

Lehner, the Plum Creek manager, said the violations were the result of not precisely measuring cuts as required by changes in the law in 1999.

"We were interpreting those rules incorrectly. It was a huge mistake for us," he said. The company has since retrained its foresters, he said.

State Forest Service officials say Plum Creek cooperated in the review of its lands and has not been found in violation of the law since the 2003 settlement.

Plum Creek's logging in deer-wintering areas has not violated any laws, but it did earn the company a bad reputation among some state officials last winter. The record also shows a clear disregard for protecting wildlife habitat when it interferes with profits, according to Johnson.
Deer-wintering areas are stands of mature spruce, fir and hemlock where deer can find shelter from cold, wind and deep snow. The so-called deer yards are considered critical for sustaining the species so far north.

Most deer yards are protected only through voluntary cutting limits agreed to by landowners and the state's Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

Biologists in the department grew frustrated last winter by Plum Creek repeatedly cutting down known deer areas. In one e-mail among staff members, a biologist said Plum Creek had a "dismal and feeble history" and probably the worst record of any major landowner in Maine. In January, another biologist warned that the cutting of deer yards had accelerated even as pressure was building for the company to stop.

Shortly after, the agency called for a meeting with Plum Creek and the two began negotiating an agreement regarding deer areas. That process is continuing, said Ken Elowe, director of resource management for Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

"They have become more understanding to the needs of deer and more understanding that they should work with us," Elowe said. At the same time, state officials are now talking about protecting more deer habitat through formal regulation.

Lehner said the company is working to resolve the dispute and pointed out that the deer areas at issue are not legally off-limits. "This is all well above and beyond what is required by law," he said. "They asked us to stop cutting and we did."

The company is still planning to place house lots inside some deer-wintering areas, Lehner said. Those plans will be reviewed by Fisheries & Wildlife.

Johnson said some of the company's aggressive cutting has been on land it intends to develop.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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