The summer of 2002 was a dark time for Maine’s paper industry, especially the employees of Great Northern Paper in Millinocket, which means it was a dark time for the town of Millinocket. The mill was teetering on the brink of closing, threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of people. But then, an unlikely bearer of deliverance showed up: The Nature Conservancy. In exchange for a $50 million investment to help the Millinocket mill and its sister in East Millinocket, the Conservancy ultimately got a conservation easement on 195,000 acres of forestlands west of Baxter State Park owned by Great Northern, as well as outright ownership of a spectacular 46,000 acre parcel south of Baxter called the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area.
On Tuesday, the easement on the larger parcel was transferred over to the state of Maine, along with a $500,000 endowment for its management. The easement allows for traditional public access, sustainable forest management and protection of special natural areas — but no future development will be allowed. It’s a way to protect both natural resources and the flow of timber to the region’s mills.
The provision of stewardship monies is important; far too many conserved lands go ultimately unprotected because there aren’t the funds to monitor their condition, enforce the legal terms of their conservation easements and carry out upkeep.
Yet another parcel whose protection has been in the works for years has just been handed over to the state by another conservation organization, the Conservation Fund. It, too, was former paper company land: the nearly 7,700 glorious acres of shorelands, wetland and forest at the headwaters of Maine’s Machias river.
The transfer constituted phase two of a preservation project that has protected the lower part of the Machias River watershed, and now this region, renowned among canoeists, wildlife lovers and sportsmen, will be forever protected, while a portion of it will remain a sustainably managed working forest.
As paper companies divest themselves of their Maine lands, these two projects stand as models of cooperative work among government, non-profit conservation groups, industry, philanthropists and the public. Because of their ability to work together on a common vision, the entire state of Maine is that much richer.