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New US Park? Maine Bid Draws High-Profile Debate


by Kelly Bates

February 03, 2004

Camp4 - Climbing News Archive

Should a national park that's bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined be established in the eastern United States? The idea has some high-profile supporters—but is it the best option for the future of Maine's storied North Woods? Many don't think so, particularly local residents who have enjoyed hunting and other traditional uses of the forest for generations.

Robert Redford, Harrison Ford, and other Hollywood 'A-listers' are among the big-name supporters of Americans for a Maine Woods National Park, an interest group that also includes scientists, educators, and environmentalists like Jane Goodall and Edward O. Wilson. The committee was founded by RESTORE: The North Woods, a conservation organization that's spearheading a protection plan for an enormous swath of woodlands in the U.S. East.

According to 2002 figures from the U.S. Forest Service, over 80 percent of Maine's 21 million acres (8.5 million hectares) is covered by forestland. Over 90 percent of that forestland is privately owned. Maine, nicknamed the Pine Tree State, is witnessing a push by environmentalists, celebrities, and others to protect forestland in the U.S. Northeast, including Maine's North Woods.

The proposed national park would encompass 3.2 million acres (1.3 million hectares), an area larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. The woods in question hold a special place in American history.

"It's sort of ironic that the national park movement happened and the place that inspired many of those early proponents is not yet one of those protected places," said Jym St. Pierre, Maine Director of RESTORE. "Thoreau didn't go to the Rockies, he came to Katahdin and wrote about the idea of creating national preserves in the East. Teddy Roosevelt made many trips into these areas of Northern Maine."

North Woods "For Sale"

In recent years international forestry, paper, and pulp industries have put up "for sale" signs across the North Woods region.

"I think since 1998 about six million acres (2.4 million hectares) have changed hands across the northern forest, from northern New York across Vermont and New Hampshire and into Maine," said Tom Abello, communications coordinator for the Nature Conservancy's Maine Chapter. "This presents opportunity as well as some apprehension."

Land once held by giant forest and paper companies is currently in transition.

"It's the more traditional forest land owners that have been putting land up for sale," Abello said. "The new owners are generally timber investors, mutual funds, endowments—the types of investors who have a shorter horizon for management and ownership. Land will be coming on the market more frequently than in the past."

The "land churn" caused by such short term investment ownership could promote fragmentation and development, conservationists fear.

"Part of the exit strategy when some of these groups get out of the market, is to cut the timber and sell off some of the lakefront for developments," Abello said.

So is declaring what's left of the woods a national park the answer? Depends whom you ask.

At the core of the debate are economics, ecological protection, and time-honored Maine traditions of recreational land use.

Changing Economics

Park proponents tout the plan's ability to diversify the boom-and-bust local economy—hard hit by cycles in the fortunes of the timber and paper industries.

"I think more and more people are recognizing the value of the idea we've put on the table," RESTORE's St. Pierre said. "That's taking advantage of the interest in ecotourism, the service sector jobs, small manufacturing, and moving away from smokestack industries. The trend is clear."

But others seek to protect the timber-related jobs that remain.

"It's important to remember that communities like Millinocket and Greenville are gateway communities whose economic livelihood depends on what's happening on the lands to the north and west of them," said Tim Glidden, an officer with Land for Maine's Future (LMF), a state government funding group for land conservation.

"Those communities are in very tough economic shape and the uncertainty there raises huge anxiety," Glidden said. "As they wrestle with the future it seems that some economics will be centered on fiber, timber, paper … but not at the scale that it used to be. What's now being explored is what kind of tourism and recreational opportunities they are particularly well situated to provide. There are all sorts of incredible opportunities if the access to the land stays open."

While everyone wants access to the land to remain open, some Maine residents are concerned that it won't be under national park status—at least not for their favorite activities.

"We all want to be sure it's not fragmented and developed," said George Smith of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. "I do give the park proponents some credit for being one of the factors that has encouraged the state's leaders to secure our future in those woods."

Smith's organization, wary of federal involvement, has collected over 35,000 signatures against a proposed park study measure.

"It would ruin the very things we value by attracting and drawing more people to that part of the state," he said. "Few of us go to Acadia [National Park, in Maine] any more. It's just mobbed. Whatever became park would be land that we're currently enjoying."

"Public recreation-access in Maine is a really big deal," said Glidden, of the LMF. "In the West there's lots of federal land so people don't realize that in the Northeast the tradition is public recreational use of private land for hunting, snowmobiling, sporting camps, things like that."

Hunting is not generally permitted in national parks. Provisions do exist for hunting and snowmobile use within the proposed park/preserve plan, but sportsmen fear that they are nonspecific and will ultimately deny them access to much of the land that they have traditionally enjoyed.

Finding a Balance?

A different blueprint for management of the North Woods has surfaced in recent years, utilizing a blend of land purchases and conservation/recreation easements.

Large-scale projects of this type designate selected wilderness areas within larger tracts of working forests—all with guaranteed public access.

In 1998 the Nature Conservancy was involved with a 185,000-acre (75,000-hectare) deal along the St. John River and Canadian Border. "That was really our first foray into large-scale conservation in the northern forest," the Nature Conservancy's Abello said. "There we've set aside 45,000 acres (18,000 hectares) to be managed as eco-reserves, wilderness areas, and the balance is being managed for sustainable timber."

In January Maine Governor John Baldacci announced the completion of the West Branch Project, a U.S. $31.8 million deal that prevents development across 329,000 acres (133,000 hectares) of Maine's North Woods. The land in play had been owned for nearly a century by industry giant Great Northern Paper Co. Now, 47,000 acres (19,000 hectares) are owned by the state of Maine. The balance remains privately owned, but recreational access has been protected by easements acquired by the Forest Society of Maine.

Federal funds nearing $20 million were contributed by the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Legacy Program.

Similar projects in the sprawling North Woods have approached the million-acre (400,000-hectare) mark.

"Our goals are to try to balance economic and ecological concerns, and we think that the model for the northern forest, ecological reserves embedded within larger working forest landscape, achieves that," Abello said.

Glidden is also working to preserve the undeveloped Maine land base for both fiber production industries and natural resource-based tourism.

"Which will have more emphasis 50 to 100 years from now," he asked. "I don't know, but we believe that we need to have the land in place. You have to hold on to those kind of properties."

Park proponents, however, push for the increased and permanent ecological protection that national park status would offer the unique area of the North Woods. Many are wary of deals that leave land in private hands, which could rely on other persons or organizations to hold up their end of the bargain.

St. Pierre believes that balance is built into the park proposal. "It would improve the balance in the Maine woods much more than any other conservation idea being pursued in terms of public/private ownership, managed/wild lands, motorized/non-motorized recreation, and extractive/non extractive economic uses," he said.

Over 100,000 people have signed RESTORE's petitions encouraging Congress to authorize a public park feasibility study.

"The window on wilderness is closing fast in this country," Harvard University scholar and Pulitzer Prize winning author E.O. Wilson wrote for RESTORE. "What we secure now will be in a sense a final bequest to all future generations. That is why the Maine Woods National Park is so important."

"I don't know of any other place where we'd have the opportunity to create an Alaskan scale national park, in the 21st century, in the backyard of the East Coast megalopolis, without having to move out a single town or kick out a single person," said St. Pierre. "We can do it at wholesale pricing on the open market. It's a very, very unusual situation and the window of course won't stay open."

Find more information about RESTORE and the North Woods project at RESTORE's website. Reported by Brian Handwerk for National Geographic News

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