- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Gov. Paul LePage is taking aim at the state tree growth program that once benefited U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, ordering up a review by the Maine Forest Service because of the potential abuse of tax breaks.

The executive order signed this week dovetails with separate review by an independent panel that was ordered up by the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. The review ordered up by LePage is due to be completed by Dec. 15, before the Legislature returns for the final session of his tenure as governor.

The tree growth program provides incentives to land owners who leave woodlands untouched, and supporters say the program has, for the most part, been a success.

But LePage has been critical of the program in which more than 11 million acres are enrolled.

Poliquin, LePage’s former treasurer, was one property owner criticized because he received a tax break on waterfront acreage in Georgetown.

Poliquin received thousands of dollars of tax breaks after enrolling 10 acres in the program aimed at encouraging sustainable, commercial timber harvesting.

Critics pounced when they learned that deed restrictions prevented cutting of trees on the land in the first place. Poliquin later removed the land from the tree growth program and placed it under an open space program offering lesser incentives.

Supporters say the program benefits the forest products industry the same as programs encouraging land to be retained for farming or for working waterfronts.

In particular, the program has preserved tracts of forest in southern Maine that otherwise would’ve been gobbled up by development, said Tom Doak, executive director of the Maine Woodland Owners, which represents timberland owners in the state.

“It’s worked. It not only grows trees. It’s the wildlife habitat and all that goes along with it. It’s kept forest habitat in southern Maine,” he said.

The governor’s executive order offers Maine Forest Service expertise to municipal officials in reviewing the program, making recommendations about forest management plans, and offering assistance in bringing woodland owners into compliance.

The panel convened by the Taxation Committee will make its recommendations by Feb. 1.

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