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Maine delegation presses federal agency to protect rural forest economy

A proposed change in federal guidance threatens conservation efforts and forestry in rural Maine, particularly on land owned and managed by the Appalachian Mountain Club, the four delegation members say.

Maine’s congressional delegation is expressing opposition to a proposed change in federal guidance around nonindustrial forests out of concern the change could threaten conservation efforts and funding for the state’s forest products industry.

In a letter this past week to Kevin Norton, acting chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the delegation pressed the agency to change a proposed a 45,000-acre threshold as part of the definition of a nonindustrial private forest. The proposal could reduce federal funding and the ability to pull in matching funds for the Appalachian Mountain Club, which owns and manages 75,000 acres of forest in Piscataquis County, the delegation said.

The club has received more than $500,000 in federal funding from agency programs under the current definition, and has used the money to hire loggers and logging equipment to install stream restoration material and restore habitat for brook trout and Atlantic salmon. Those activities also help improve the ability of loggers to conduct timber stand management and move wood from the forest to market, wrote U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree.

“The $523,000 in grants that AMC has received to date from NRCS have been matched by $870,000 in private funds for a total of nearly $1.4 million invested in the local economy of one of Maine’s poorest counties,” the letter said. “The loss of these funds would be a severe blow to Maine’s economy that is already reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The USDA currently defines nonindustrial forests based on criteria in the Food Security Act of 1985, including whether the land has existing tree cover and is owned by a private nonindustrial individual or group. The acreage threshold is being proposed in an attempt to clarify that guidance and assist in distinguishing between industrial and nonindustrial landowners, according to documents in the Federal Register, a database of government agency rules and proposed rules. The proposal allows for additional state-based criteria, though the delegation said that’s not enough to mitigate their concern.

“It is our hope that you will reconsider the proposed definition change to (nonindustrial private forest land), as it does not accurately reflect the reality that land holdings greater than 45,000 acres are not exclusively associated with large corporate forest owners,” they wrote.

Eliza Townsend, director of the AMC Maine Conservation Policy office, and Bill Brooke, chairman of the Maine chapter of the AMC, did not respond to a phone call and email Saturday. A media contact for the USDA did not respond to an email seeking information about its response to the delegation’s letter.