The 127th Legislature adjourned on April 29, and is unlikely to return until a new Legislature is seated in December. Here are highlights some of bills affecting woodland owners:
LD 866, Arming forest rangers. This bill would have required the director of the Bureau of Forestry to provide no fewer than 16 rangers with a firearm, and at least 32 more with ballistic vests and tasers. The chief ranger would no longer be appointed, with any new chief ranger selected from current rangers. We opposed this bill because arming rangers would change their mission from natural resource protection to law enforcement. It was defeated.
LD 1536, Ballistic vests for rangers. It proposed requiring all state law enforcement officers, including game wardens, forest rangers, marine patrol officers and investigative officers and detectives be equipped with ballistic vests. Maine Woodland Owners
supported providing vests to any Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry employees management felt should have them. The department agreed to provide vests to forest rangers, as did other agencies for their employees. This separate bill became unnecessary when funding for vests was authorized through a budget appropriation.
LD 1325, Discontinued and abandoned roads. Sponsored on behalf of Maine Woodland Owners by Rep. Catherine Nadeau, the bill, as amended, requires a full public process whenever a road is discontinued, including notification to abutting property owners; a meeting of municipal officers to discuss the proposed discontinuance, a statement whether a public easement across the road is being retained, a public hearing approval by the municipal legislative body; and filing a certificate in the Registry of Deeds. It also directs municipalities to file any known past discontinuances in the registry. It retains the presumption that abandonment exists if a municipality fails to keep a way passable for motor vehicles for 30 or more years. It requests that municipalities develop a full inventory of all existing and former municipal roads, with their status, including whether a public easement exists, and submit the inventory to the Maine DOT, which must report to the Legislature on municipal inventories by Nov. 1, 2018. The bill also allows landowners abutting a discontinued or abandoned road where a public easement is retained to bring a civil action against any person who damages the road. In addition to other penalties, a court is authorized to order offenders to restore the road and pay the landowner’s legal fees. We strongly supported this bill and, with the help of many legislators, received overwhelming support, including enactment and overriding the governor’s veto. This is the first major change, and improvement, to the relevant statutes in 40 years.
LD 1458, Stop work orders for loggers. This is legislative approval of a “major substantive” rule, proposed by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, stemming from legislation authored by Sen. Brian Langley that we strongly supported in 2013. It authorized the Maine Forest Service to issue a stop work order against a logger who has two or more convictions of timber trespass in a five-year period. While willful timber trespass is very uncommon, there have been a few individuals who have repeatedly violated the law, and once the trees are gone, they cannot be put back. The rules provide an important tool to stop the worst offenders; we supported this legislation, and it passed.
LD 1691, Tree Growth Tax Law. This late bill, proposed and supported by the Administration, would have changed management plan requirements for all owners; removed all lands currently in the program within 10 miles of the ocean and tidal waters, including rivers; eliminated all parcels less than 25 acres; and forced out any woodland owners whose primary activity is maple syrup production, growing Christmas trees or harvesting boughs for wreaths. It would also have allowed the Maine Forest Service to compel local assessors to remove woodland owners from Tree Growth if that agency, at its discretion and without appeal, believed the landowner was not in full compliance. That removal could occur even if the local tax assessor had determined the landowner was following all the rules, and a licensed forester, as currently required, certified compliance. Many existing owners would have been removed, not because they were violating any current provisions, but because of changed standards. Landowners forced out would have faced substantial financial penalties. We strongly opposed this legislation. Though the Taxation Committee was obligated to hold a public hearing, the committee unanimously opposed the bill, killing it. In the session’s last days, the administration was still seeking a sponsor for a scaled-down version, but no bill came forward. We’re certain to see another attack on Tree Growth next session despite published Maine Forest Service data showing the program works as intended, and has a high compliance rate. We’ll continue our coverage in upcoming issues.
LD 1676, Biomass generating plants. With recent closures of several pulp and paper mills, markets for wood have become lean. Compounding the market difficulties has been the low cost of oil and gas and a mild winter, which makes biomass plants less competitive. One of the session’s most challenging issues was whether, and how, to assist the struggling biomass industry. No one wants electricity rates or taxes to go up, but without the market for low-grade wood biomass plants provide – and as the closed mills once did – we could lose so much logging infrastructure that remaining sawmills, pellet mills and pulp and paper mills might not get enough wood to operate. After considering many proposals, the Legislature enacted a limited plan authorizing the Public Utilities Commission to solicit bids for up to 80 megawatts of energy from biomass at above-market prices for two years. The PUC would have to certify economic benefits to award any bid, with the cost of subsidies capped at $13.4 million, paid from surplus revenues. We ultimately supported the bill to help to bring some stability to a very unstable wood market, if only for a short time.
Joint Resolution, Strategic forest plan. We worked with the University of Maine and the Maine Forest Products Council to get this resolve enacted as a first step toward a good, hard look at the future of the forest economy. The biomass bill is a short-term fix; what’s needed is a thorough look, given today’s realities, of what the state must do to ensure we have a strong forest-based economy that supports landowners, mills and loggers. The University will convene a steering committee, with Maine Woodland Owners represented, to guide this effort.