The Myth of Pinchot

Like many people, I found Governor LePage’s refusal to issue Land For Maine’s Future (LMF) bonds a violation of democratic principles.  When I voted on the bonds there was no language saying that I was approving the Governor’s use of the bonds as bargaining chips for issues of importance to him.  He had “promised” to issue the bonds after the hospital debt was resolved to his liking, but now they are hostage to yet another issue, his vision for timber harvest on public reserve lands.  More to the point, I recall that the bonds passed with more citizen support than the Governor himself received.  Had the Governor been a bond issue, he would not have passed – twice.

Upon further reflection, I came to think the battle over LMF bonds reflects a much broader issue in Maine around the politics of forest lands in the state.  There have been several public controversies in recent years around Maine’s North Woods – including the Plumb Creek Concept Plan for the Moosehead Region before the Land Use Regulation Commission; the bear hunting referendum last fall; expedited approval processes for wind power development in unorganized territories; the East/West private toll highway; and proposals for a National Park and a National Recreation Area East of Baxter State Park.  All of these debates and the Governor’s use of bonding as a bargaining chip reflect an underlying and unstated belief in what I call the myth of Pinchot.

Gifford Pinchot was the first Chief of what is now the USDA Forest Service, and he is often referred to as the father of American professional forestry.  Central to Pinchot’s approach to forest management was the utilitarian concept that became known as multiple use management.  Pinchot was a close protégé of Teddy Roosevelt and a central player in the Progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th Century.  His concern for overexploitation of public lands by private interests in the late 19th Century led to forcible advocacy for the public role in resource management.  The central tenet for Pinchot was the idea that we should manage public forest lands to achieve the greatest good, for the most people, for the longest period of time, sometimes called his utilitarian ethic.  To accomplish this goal Pinchot was what American environmental historian Roderick Nash called a “multiple use man.”

Multiple use management became the driving idea behind 20th Century forest management and was wholeheartedly embraced in Maine, even though most of the state’s forest lands are not the public forests with which Pinchot was concerned.  The idea of multiple use now means in Maine that forests can give us timber harvest (for paper making, biomass energy, and building products), outdoor recreation, watershed protection, wildlife habitat, carbon sinks, wilderness, wind powered electricity, and more.  In the terminology of economists, forests provide consumptive uses, nonconsumptive uses, and ecosystem services.  To oversimplify, the idea is we believe you can get everything, everywhere, all of the time from our forests.

The myth part of multiple use management is that it creates the false expectation that all of the uses can be provided without any conflict.  In the jargon of today, multiple use management is characterized as the original win/win approach.  The problem with that expectation is that citizens are led to believe if we just leave forest management to the professionals who understand the multiple use ethic we can get all these uses.  Yet win/win solutions are not as common as we would like to think.  They violate the first law of economics — there is no such thing as a free lunch.

The pursuit of multiple use management ultimately means that some uses get crowded out by others.  A great example of this is research done on forest based recreation in Ontario by Len Hunt and colleagues.  In this work they investigated the impact of commercial timber management activities on recreationists.  With some exceptions, those participating in motorized or consumptive activities (hunting, snowmobiling, etc.) were indifferent to or enjoyed recreating in the presence of commercial timber operations.  Those participating in non-motorized or non-consumptive activities (hiking, mountain biking, canoeing) preferred not to recreate in the presence of those activities.  The fundamental lesson of this research is that multiple use works for some but not for others.  Multiple use crowds out some types of users, just in the realm of recreation.  When you start adding other uses to the forests, more crowding out occurs.

The point is that the multiple use approach holds out the promise that Maine’s North Woods can meet everyone’s needs (including the Governor’s desire for more public timber harvest); but the reality is that choosing the multiple use approach is choosing to benefit one group of users over another.  For example, while expediting wind power development in the unorganized territories benefits developers and may have a climate change benefit, it is not without costs.  It may degrade the quality of life for those who have chosen to live in Maine’s mountain regions or those who enjoy the migratory birds adversely affected by wind turbines.  (Maine’s forests are part of the North American boreal forests that are particularly important to birds.)

So the Governor’s desire to use the LMF bond issuance to get the Legislature to permit more timber harvest from public reserve lands is one more debate framed by the multiple use ethic we inherit from Gifford Pinchot.  The Governor’s proposal taps into the unstated belief that additional timber harvest will not affect other desired uses.

While multiple use management was an important response to the issues faced by the national government at the beginning of the 20th Century, it tends to delude us at the beginning of the 21st Century when many more humans are asking much more from our natural world.  Now more than ever there are tradeoffs in our use of public and private forest lands and there are fewer win/win outcomes.

There are two alternatives to multiple use management.  First is segregation of uses, what we understand in urban and suburban environments as zoning.  The scale of use segregation in the North Maine Woods is much greater than in municipalities, but the principles are the same.  The idea of a national park or national recreation area is consistent with this approach.  It says that some areas are for preservation and recreational uses not compatible with industrial forestry, while other areas are just right for commercial forest management.  The second alternative to multiple use is to recognize that 21st Century life will require harder choices about our landscape.  To make those choices we will need to acknowledge that choice will impose costs on some users, what economists refer to as opportunity costs.

A good example of this can be seen in a survey that my colleagues and I did of Maine residents as part of UMaine’s Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.  We asked Mainers whether they agreed with this statement: Large parcels of land on the Earth should be set aside as wilderness areas/nature preserves where humans are kept out.  As you can see from this bar chart, a surprising number of people agreed with this statement.  These data show support for a use that would not fit with Maine’s current multiple use ethic.

Myth of Pinchot graphic

It is time for us to recognize that multiple use management does not support everyone’s vision of how Maine’s landscape should be used and confront the reality that some uses do crowd out others.  Only by recognizing this can we begin the hard discussions about what uses we are willing to have and where.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.