GNP, The Nature Conservancy alliance questioned

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

By MIKE LANGE - GREENVILLE - Great Northern Paper (GNP) Company's unprecedented partnership with The Nature Conservancy that places nearly 200,000 acres of forest land into a conservation easement was a major topic at Thursday's Maine Woods Coalition (MWC) Steering Committee meeting.

The Coalition has taken a neutral position on conservation easements in the past, noting that they "can be a valuable and practical tool to meet multiple goals without sacrificing many of the benefits of private land ownership."

However, the platform position also states that since the funding for conservation rights is often through state and federal money, "The public deserves to have some say on how its funds are used, what rights are being protected and how."

MWC Chairman John Simko, Greenville's town manager, said that the Coalition will undoubtedly be questioned about the GNP deal and whether the organization still feels the same way about conservation easements. "We talked about so many Œwhat-if' situations. But now it's happened right in our back yard," said Simko.

As expected, GNP representative Brian Stetson strongly endorsed the agreement with The Nature Conservancy for several reasons, many of them related to the company's financial situation.

The Nature Conservancy purchased $50 million in existing loans to GNP, retired $14 million of it and refinanced the balance at a very competitive rate, Stetson explained.

GNP will sell 41,000 acres directly to The Nature Conservancy and has agreed to place another 200,000 acres in a conservation easement, but will still retain ownership of 80,000 forested acres south and east of Millinocket.

Stetson also noted that GNP has been a corporate sponsor of The Nature Conservancy "for a number of years. What we like about their philosophy is that they're willing to put their money where their mouth is. They also strongly believe in a multi-use, sustainable forest."

The land deal also has been discussed for years, Stetson said. "We haven't harvested in the Debsconeag Lake area for years. It's traditionally been set aside for people to have access by non-motorized means," said the GNP representative.

So by agreeing to set the land into a conservation easement, Stetson said that "some people feel we're paid to do what we're already doing."

The easement allows traditional use of the woods for recreational purposes like fishing, hunting and trapping; but prohibits "liquidation harvesting. In other words, you can cut what you grow," said Stetson.

But one critic of the GNP-The Nature Conservancy deal was Eugene Conlogue, the town manager of Millinocket. "The idea of a 100-year-old company selling much of its land close to home is not a good thing for the area," said Conlogue.

He also pointed out that The Nature Conservancy, in one of its press releases, said that it would "explore the possibility of federal funding programs" as well as state money. "It should not be a taxpayers' function to fund a private enterprise transaction. I'm also uncomfortable with having The Nature Conservancy on Millinocket's doorstep," said Conlogue.

Simko said that he agreed with at least some aspects of Conlogue's concerns. He cited Greenville's Community Development Block Grant and Economic Development applications to upgrade the town's infrastructure for a proposed wood composite center and a newly-announced sawmill. "But we don't do it backwards. We don't spend the money out of the town's surplus account to build something and then ask the state to reimburse us," said Simko.

Fears that the land aquisition-easement deal was a prelude to a national park in the North Woods was downplayed by most of the steering committee, however. Some noted that Jym St. Pierre, the executive director of RESTORE: The North Woods, had described the agreement as a "step in the right direction" for national park proponents. "I think he just wanted to jump on the bandwagon. It was a p.r. deal," said Simko.

The meeting did attract a larger audience than usual, including Bucky Owen, a trustee with The Nature Conservancy; Ralph Knowles of the Maine Department of Conservation; MWC's legal counsel Erik Stumpfel; and representatives from Sen. Olympia Snowe's and Sen. Susan Collins' district offices.

"This content originally appeared as a copyrighted article in the Moosehead Messenger and is used here with permission."