By Trevor Maxwell, Portland Press Herald Writer
Maine’s largest environmental group has unveiled an alternative vision for development of the Moosehead Lake region.
It features more conservation and fewer than half of the house lots proposed by Plum Creek Timber Co., the landowner seeking to develop about 10,000 acres surrounding the state’s jewel lake.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine offered its plan as an alternative concept for the public and interested parties to review and debate.
The presentation Tuesday comes as Plum Creek prepares to submit its own scaled-back proposal. Company officials say the new version makes concessions from the original and should be on the desks of state regulators within three weeks.
Both plans attempt to answer a larger question: What does the future hold for Maine’s North Woods, now that the era of traditional timber operations is over? Development around Moosehead could dictate future land use across the state’s vast unorganized territories.
“Some people have said the only game in town is the Plum Creek plan,” said Brownie Carson, executive director of the Natural Resources Council. “We categorically reject that.”>/p>
The cornerstone of the council’s alternative is permanent conservation and public access for 424,000 woodland acres. The proposal would protect timber harvesting, hunting, nature-based tourism and the wilderness character of the region, Carson said.
The council identified five sites that could accommodate a total of 300 to 450 house lots, some with water views, but none directly on shorelines. Plum Creek proposes 975 house lots, including several waterfront properties.
Carson also called for a “Maine Woods Lodge” and the revitalization of the Squaw Mountain ski area on Big Moose Mountain, although it is not part of Plum Creek’s holdings.
Carson believes the council’s vision is strong enough to sway public opinion in the coming months. Much of it is based on the input of local residents, he said.
Still, the actual impact of the alternative plan remains to be seen. As with the other critics of Plum Creek, the council’s strength is limited by its third-party status during the state review process.
“Everybody has a different vision for the Moosehead Lake region. This is one person or one outfit’s vision,” said Catherine Carroll, director of Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission. The agency oversees zoning within the unorganized territories.
“I get handed a lot of materials from many folks, but frankly I am not going to do anything more with it than put it on my bookcase when I am done reading,” she said.
Jim Lehner, Plum Creek’s Maine-based manager of Northeast operations, said some of the alternative suggestions are already part of his company’s revised plan.
“Many of the things they have proposed are the same kinds of things we have been hearing around the state over the past year,” Lehner said.
The original Plum Creek plan, submitted more than a year ago, proposed development on about 10,000 acres. It mapped out 975 house lots, two resorts, three RV parks, commercial sporting camps and dozens of seasonal cabins. The company also proposed about 400,000 acres to be protected as working forest for at least 30 years. Critics said those protections were too weak and too temporary, and they questioned the location of proposed new housing.
Reacting to strong public opposition last summer and fall, Plum Creek went back to the drawing board.
“We heard loud and clear that many people wanted to see more permanent conservation,” Lehner said. “We heard the lots were too spread out. People want them clustered closer to the communities, and we are working on that.”>/p>
Besides increased conservation, the revised plan shifts house lots closer to existing development in Rockwood and Greenville. It scales back a resort near Lily Bay and might relocate the second resort from Brassua Lake to the Big Moose Mountain area.
The total number of house lots, though, will likely remain the same as the original plan. The revision goes as far toward compromise as is possible, while still making financial sense, Lehner said.
“The concessions we will be making in the second round are significant,” he said.