By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 11/17/03
When Mead/Westvaco put its 659,000 acres in Maine and New Hampshire on the market earlier this year, lake camp owners and leaders of conservation groups began worrying over who the new buyer would be. Now that a sale has occurred, those concerned are breathing a sigh of relief, even though the buyer is a mystery.
What is soothing the concerns of people like Alan Johnson is that Wagner Forest Management Ltd. of Lyme, N. H. will manage the lands. Wagner is a firm that has overseen harvesting for many different owners since the 1970s in Maine and New Hampshire. Johnson, co-chairman of the Aziscohos Lake Preservation Committee, takes Wagner’s involvement as a sign that the former Mead/Westvaco woods will continue to be managed commercially for the long-term – not liquidated as quickly as possible and subdivided for a big profit.
"This has definitely taken a load off my mind," said Johnson, a New Hampshire business owner who also owns a camp on Aziscohos. "We’re optimistic the area will remain as it has been." His organization "enjoyed a very good relationship with Mead/Westvaco," said Johnson, and he looks forward to getting to known the Wagner team – if not the silent partners.
Among other lake camp owners’ associations anxious to learn about Wagner’s plans are those on Kennebago and Parmachenee lakes, also in western Maine, and a number of local, regional, state and private conservation interests. Roger Vigue, a camp owner on Kennebago Lake, said he didn’t know much about Wagner but was "hoping they won’t develop" the side of the lake that Mead/Westvaco owned.
The ink had hardly dried on the sale and purchase agreement before conservationists were calling Wagner’s chief, Tom Colgan, to talk about potential fee or conservation easement acquisitions. He indicated that after the closing with Mead/Westvaco, there will be opportunities for those discussions to occur.
But Colgan has declined to comment on the identity of the new owners. Business confidentiality precludes him from doing so, he said. Wagner manages two million acres of lands, mostly in Maine and New Hampshire, for other anonymous investors, and it is assumed that they are primarily institution and pension funds. Yale University’s endowment fund entity has been confirmed in the past as an investor of Wagner-managed lands in the West Branch of the Penobscot and Down East areas of Maine.
Conservationists are optimistic that some of the most ecologically and recreationally valuable parcels can be protected and that the new owners will have the patience to wait until funds can be raised for acquisition. On the horizon is a plan by Maine Gov. John Baldacci to raise $100 million for land protection through a new bond issue.
Ian Burnes, Maine director of the Northern Forest Alliance, said his organization and numerous other public and private conservation interests are working to identify the tracts of highest priority. Purchase by outright fee and conservation easement is planned.
Mead/Westvaco held out from the sale about 10,000 acres with important natural resources. Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL), the nonprofit Trust for Public Lands (TPL) and the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) had been in active negotiations with the company for two parcels prior to the sale and will continue to work toward closing those deals, according to Ralph Knoll of BPL. He said the tracts are on Tumbledown Mountain and Mount Abraham, both in western Maine.
The state and TPL are focused on Tumbledown to augment protection for that mountain range, one of Maine’s most popular hiking areas. In recent years over $5 million in federal, state and private funds have been spent to protect nearly 20,000 acres in the area. The ATC is trying to acquire a 1,100-acre parcel on Mount Abraham’s ridge and western slope; the last piece is a 6,000-acre project, said Jerry Bley of Creative Conservation consulting. That overall initiative is being spearheaded by the ATC in cooperation with TPL and The Nature Conservancy. Bley said a 1,200 parcel in Madrid also is the subject of negotiation because it too abuts the Appalachian Trail (A.T.).
After Mead/Westvaco announced it would sell the 657,000 acres, Alan Johnson wrote letters-to-the-editor of sporting journals in Maine asking the public to encourage chairman and chief executive officer John A. Luke Jr. "to find a buyer that intends to maintain the property’s current use, supplying the lumber and paper industry, protecting jobs and limiting development."
"Like most people, it really doesn’t matter to me who owns the land, it matters what they do with it, " wrote Johnson. Rather than sit back and see the landscape altered forever by development around lakes and ponds, posting, restricted access and other changes in use, he said "like-minded people must get organized, formulate a strategy and implement a plan to achieve a common vision for the land. Once a parcel is sold, cut up and developed, it is too late. We have all watched in horror as 900,000 acres near Moosehead Lake [purchased by Plum Creek Timber] was subdivided." (Johnson was referring to Plum Creek’s successful subdivision on First Roach Pond east of Moosehead.)
Mead/Westvaco sold the 659,000 acres (an area the size of Rhode Island) for more than $125 million, or about $200 an acre. Most of the land, 518,000 acres, is in western Maine’s Oxford and Franklin counties, with scattered parcels in Somerset, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. One hundred and eleven thousand acres are in neighboring New Hampshire. The per-acre price reflects the timberland value, not the development value – another reason conservationists believe that the new owners’ intent for the land is forest management.
Besides the 10,000 it kept, Mead/Westvaco held on to the paper mill in Rumford. The company’s deal with the new investors holds them to supplying the mill with pulpwood for 50 years. There is no information available about how much land is needed to remain in forestland to fulfill the wood contract or whether Wagner could meet the contract requirements with wood from other lands it manages. Tom Colgan declined to comment on the details of the contract.
If the mill were to close, a breakup of the land base could happen, as it has in other situations as the commercial forest continues to change hands relatively quickly and is divided and divided again. But if the mill were sold again, the wood supply contract would be an important asset, according to industry observers.
Following the sale to the new investors, BPL’s Knoll was in immediate contact with Wagner about the state’s "wish list," he said. One parcel is about 4,000 acres in Grafton Township. It abuts the A. T. corridor and BPL’s Mahoosuc unit and contains a section of the new Grafton Loop Trail, a significant side trail off the A. T. The purchase of the parcel would shore up the state ownership there and insure protection of the new loop path, said Knoll.
There are other parcels in Parmachenee and Magalloway townships on the border with New Hampshire that also interest local and regional conservationists, according to Ian Burnes. Fishermen, camp owners and businesses have been meeting among themselves to talk about possible acquisition efforts. Alan Johnson said there may be "independent people unaffiliated" with interest groups that may come forth as conservation buyers.
In New Hampshire, conservationists are focused on the Dead and Swift Diamond watershed tract near Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge. Dartmouth College also has a piece there that is well-managed for sustainable forestry, Barnes said. The tract connects to TPL’s Connecticut Lakes headwaters ownership. Also flagged as important is the headwaters of the Magalloway River in Maine above Aziscohos Lake, which has an outstanding cold water fishery, natural flows, native species and no invasive competitors. The Little Magalloway has sustained a genetically rare species of trout since the ice age, Burnes said.
There is an ongoing "racking and stacking" of acquisition proposals based on priority, money and the unprecedented number of important lands available for fee sale or easement acquisition, said BPL’s Knoll. In the last five years, almost 30 percent of Maine’s land base, or 5.5 million acres, has changed hands (including the Mead/Westvaco lands), according to Burnes. The figures include sales of 5,000 acres and up.
"Until there is new funding, I don’t see us doing a deal with Mead/Westvaco," Knoll said. Wagner understands the reality of financing and understands the merits of waiting in line, he added, and Knoll hopes the new investors will be as patient. Wagner is well experienced in fee/easement sales.
Wagner is tough but fair-minded in conservation deals, according to conservationists who have worked with the company on the West Branch and Down East Lakes conservation projects (involving 998,000 acres and $70 million). "I think they understand the opportunity that conservation deals present to their business model," said Burnes. The Mead/Westvaco land was under green certification through the forest industry’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and Wagner has stated that the land will remain in that program. Burnes is pleased about the commitment to SFI because it will insure Best Management Practices will be used to harvest the woods.
But the anonymity of the new owners worries Burnes. "Ownership in the North Woods doesn’t have a face to it as it once did," he observed. Burnes thinks the public’s acceptance of mystery represents "almost a culture shift." A couple of years ago, the legislature tried to extract from Wagner the names of new owners of large tracts in northern and eastern Maine but was unsuccessful.
The deal between Mead/Westvaco and the investment group will close by the end of the year. Mead/Westvaco said it was selling 1.4 million acres of its 3.2 million acres in order to reduce company debt.
Go to archive of Phyllis Austin Reports for Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org).