Plum Creek is proposing the largest development in Maine history around Moosehead Lake. Is this the end of the North Woods or its economic salvation? Either way northern Maine will never be the same.
Luke Muzzy figures that twenty years from now the people of Greenville will either consider him a saint or they’ll be burning him at the stake. He doesn’t have to wait. Some feel that way already. Muzzy works for Plum Creek.
Study a satellite photograph of New England taken at night and civilization is easy to see. Blotches of white light mark towns, cities, and suburbs. The New York-New Jersey metroplex sprawls across the landscape, and Cape Cod tails away from the huge urban area surrounding Boston. Maine’s own southern coast and Portland, Lewiston-Auburn, Bangor — all are easily identified by their collective coronas of streetlights and neon signs and vehicle headlights.
But look north and it all fades away. Greenville and Jackman and Fort Kent are dots of light bounding a blankness where nothing shines bright enough to make its mark from orbit. That is the North Woods, the largest undeveloped area east of the Mississippi. Not wilderness exactly — this is working forest after all — but definitely a place quite unlike anyplace else.
It is also where Plum Creek Timber Company wants to create the largest development in the history of Maine. The Seattle-based real estate investment trust has filed an application with the state Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) to carve out and sell 975 building lots on and near Moosehead and the surrounding lakes, along with two resorts and a campground.
In exchange, Plum Creek says, it will give the state conservation easements on 71,000 acres and set up a locally controlled loan fund for recreational trails and local education financed with a donation of 1 percent of every lot sale. If the plan is approved, a separate deal with three major environmental groups would protect another 330,000 acres.
The plan is staggering in its scope, encompassing some seventy lakes and ponds and more than four hundred thousand acres scattered across ten townships. The application alone runs to more than one thousand pages. At just the prospect of facing the project, LURC won extra funding from the legislature to hire two new staffers and a handful of consultants, as well as permission to drastically increase its fee schedule.
It also promises to be one of the hardest-fought environmental battles in more than two decades. For the first time in Maine, a developer has mounted a sophisticated public relations campaign that includes television ads urging public support for the project. Plum Creek has hired the four top environmental and politically connected law firms in the state, used the promise of land protection to split its potential opponents in the conservation community, and courted endorsements from businesses, towns, and statewide organizations such as the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Maine Snowmobile Association. Its point man in Greenville is Luke Muzzy, a fifth-generation native whose family built the landmark Indian Hill Trading Post. He enthusiastically insists that the project will turn Greenville from a rural 1,600-person community in decline into a year-round boomtown with an increasing population, a thriving school system, and a healthy future.
On the other side is the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Maine Audubon Society, and a loose coalition of local opponents organized as the Moosehead Regional Futures Commission. At stake, they say, is nothing less than the soul and the future of the North Woods and Moosehead Lake. And perhaps even of Maine.
“This is all about the character of Maine’s future — who we are going to be and, more important, who will control our destiny,” declares Brownie Carson, director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Will it be the Plum Creeks and the Wal-Marts and other big corporations, none of them based in Maine? Or will it be Maine’s people?”
Plum Creek first came to Maine in 1998 and quickly became one of the state’s largest landowners when it acquired more than nine hundred thousand acres of former Sappi Paper Company territory. Today it owns some 929,000 acres in Maine and more than 8.1 million nationally.
Created in 1989 as an offshoot of the resource management arm of Burlington Northern Railroad, Plum Creek’s hard-cutting forest management practices in the West earned it a reputation as the Darth Vader of the timber industry. Company officials have worked vigorously in Maine to persuade skeptics that those days are past. It also has played down its history of selling off its high-value property as recreational land, although company officials flatly deny they ever publicly or privately took real estate development off the list of options when the company acquired its Maine forestlands.
In 2001 the company created and sold an eighty-nine-lot subdivision on First Roach Pond, near Kokadjo, east of Moosehead Lake. Three years later, Plum Creek announced plans to carve out up to 1,200 lots, two six thousand-acre resorts, and an industrial park on more than a dozen ponds and lakes in the Moosehead region [Down East, March 2005], some of them remote and undeveloped. Rather than permanent land conservation, Plum Creek proposed only a thirty-year nondevelopment agreement.
The proposal set off a firestorm of protests. “When Plum Creek first came into this area, some folks were afraid something like this would happen,” recalls Greenville resident Sandy Neilly, staff coordinator for the Moosehead Region Futures Committee, which has offered its own, more limited vision for development in the area. “Now it’s happening. There’s a real fear we’ll end up looking like Sebago Lake or Winnipesaukee.”
LURC and Plum Creek held a series of four “scoping sessions” to hear comments and concerns about the plan — among them worries that the proposed subdivisions were too scattered and that the sheer scale threatened to overwhelm the region’s character and infrastructure. Emotions ran so high that one night last November vandals mounted a coordinated attack on three offices and three homes associated with Plum Creek and its employees, smearing manure, animal carcasses, paint, and foul-smelling chemicals on buildings in Greenville, Oakland, Fairfield, and Hallowell. The vandals have not been caught.
In April Plum Creek unveiled a revised thirty-year concept plan that called for 975 house lots, a four-season resort on Big Moose Mountain near the existing Big Squaw Mountain ski area, and a five-hundred-acre resort on Lily Bay — some 4,200 acres altogether. Subdivision proposals were pulled off eight backwoods ponds and concentrated along Moosehead and Brassua lakes and a handful of other ponds. Plum Creek would donate conservation easements on 71,000 acres and give permanent public access to 144 miles of hiking and snowmobile trails.
The release of the revised plan came only a few days after the company announced a startling deal with the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Forest Society of Maine — an agreement to protect 330,000 acres east and west of Moosehead either through easements or outright purchase. No price was announced, but estimates ran from $25 million to $35 million and up.
All three organizations insist that their participation does not constitute an endorsement of Plum Creek’s plan, but Plum Creek officials freely admit that the deal depends on state approval of their development application. Nor has Plum Creek been shy about trumpeting the agreement as part of the plan’s conservation component, even though it’s not part of the LURC application and there are no assurances the three groups will be able to raise the money to pull it off.
Tying the two issues so closely together has raised accusations that Plum Creek is intentionally muddying the waters of the debate to make the project look more “green” than it actually is. Critics also accuse the company of holding the conservation plan hostage to put more pressure on regulators and silence some of its potential opponents.
So why not defuse the criticism by separating the two issues? Jim Lehner, a forester who is Plum Creek’s general manager in Maine, offers a complicated reasoning for the linkage that boils down to preserving the larger property’s development potential if the concept plan doesn’t go through. “Part of what we’re offering is the frontage on seventy ponds,” he explains. “The easement strips out all of that value. If we go ahead with the conservation deal and don’t get the ability to develop in the areas proposed under the concept plan, we would lose the value of that shorefront for the future.”
“It raises the issue of trust,” Carson allows. “Plum Creek says it has changed from the bad old days. But if it’s serious about conservation and devoted to timberland management, like its Web site says, why is it doing this?”
Lehner and other company officials readily allow that Plum Creek could have gone ahead with a piecemeal development strategy along the lines of its original First Roach Pond subdivision without anywhere near the level of review and conservation in its concept plan. On a floatplane flyover of the company’s Moosehead properties, Luke Muzzy points out a remote pond surrounded by forest and says, “I could sell that whole piece to you today without any LURC review at all.”
Asked why the company prefers a single huge plan over a more gradual approach, Lehner falls back on the explanation he has offered for the past several years: “It’s a matter of predictability,” he offers. “The advantage to us, once the plan is approved, is that we know exactly where we’re going to go and what we’re going to do when we get there.”
“I would argue that the Plum Creek plan takes the development that’s going to happen anyway, organizes it, and tries to mitigate its impact,” says John Simko, Greenville’s town manager. “Absent that, we’re going to have a little bit here and a little bit there and end up with the North Woods that everyone loves being ruined by all the people who love it.”
Brownie Carson remembers canoeing across Moosehead from Rockwood to Kineo to Northeast Carry as a teenager back in 1961. “It was then and still is stunningly beautiful,” he says. “Where can you find another virtually pristine lake that size? You can’t, not in this country. It’s a magical place. Maine is one of the few places left in the United States where, within a day’s drive of eighty or ninety million people, you can have a wilderness experience like that.”
That treasure is becoming more valuable every day as the traditional forest industries in Maine shrink. Greenville has largely made the transition to a tourist town, and the region’s future increasingly depends on nature-based tourism. “What’s the value of paddling along the shore in Lily Bay and looking up at a subdivision full of McMansion-size ‘cottages on the slope above?” Carson asks rhetorically. The Moosehead region’s future depends on a wilderness reputation that might be difficult to justify in the face of development on Plum Creek’s scale.
No one, not even Carson, denies that development in the region is inevitable. The big debate is where. The Natural Resources Council is willing to cede the southwestern side of the lake between Greenville and Rockwood, where the Big Squaw Mountain Ski Resort already creates a natural focus for seasonal home and recreational development. Carson admits that the shift of a planned resort from Brassua Lake to Big Moose Mountain, near the ski area, is a significant improvement.
“There’s a way to do [development] so that the character and values of the area are protected,” Carson insists. “But if the state allows multiple sprawling subdivisions on Prong Pond and Brassua Lake and elsewhere, that would be a very serious loss.”
Liz Munster, owner of Spalding, Mellon & Munster Real Estate in Rockwood, says protecting the unique atmosphere of the community where she grew up is more important to her than selling more house lots. “What makes people come here and spend their money is what we have — the quiet, the solitude, the peacefulness,” she explains. “If we change too soon too fast, you’ll start hearing people say, ‘I want streetlights. I want paved roads. I want a 7-Eleven.’s Well, guess what? Most folks live here and visit here because we don’t have a frigging 7-Eleven.”>/p>
Luke Muzzy counters that Greenville has seen its school population drop by almost half in twenty-five years to 255 students, the local hospital is operating at 40 percent capacity, and housing prices are already too high for young families to be able to live in Greenville. “We’ve lost a lot of the year-round population,” he states, although U.S. Census figures show the town’s population has stayed at about 1,600 since 1990. “The second-home market is keeping us alive right now.” He points to an economic impact study by economist Charles Colgan of the Muskie School at the University of Southern Maine predicting that the Plum Creek project alone would bring in 1,200 new jobs — and the families that go with them.
It’s a claim many people view with skepticism. Munster has served on the Greenville planning board and the local economic development committee. She has watched hundreds of new seasonal homes be built in the area. “I didn’t see the taxes go down or the school enrollment go up or a ton of new businesses come into town because all those new subdivisions were built in the past ten years,” she observes. “Why should anyone think hundreds more cottages will make a difference?”
Wendy Weiger looked all over the United States for a new home outside the cities. A physician who had spent most of her career in research at Harvard University, she chose Moosehead Lake in 2002 because it was close to Boston but on the edge of that big blank spot on the satellite photo. And she promptly bought a lot on First Roach Pond from Plum Creek.
Today Weiger admits she bought the land, which remains empty, without understanding the issues and trends it represented. “I didn’t come up here to be involved in environmental activism,” she says. “I was coming from Boston, where the population density is more than 12,000 people per square mile, and going to Piscataquis County, with a density of four people per square mile. The whole area looked vast and unlimited. My urban viewpoint changed drastically when I moved here and realized how fragile and endangered the North Woods are.”
Ninety-nine percent of the people saying that this is a great plan have never seen the places that are going to be destroyed,” adds John Willard, owner of the 11,000-acre Birches Resort near Rockwood. “People in Augusta, Portland, Bangor, outside Maine, they don’t understand the impact this will have.” He includes Simko and other Greenville town officials in that list, noting wryly that none of the development they support so avidly will occur in their town.
Willard has some experience in the matter. His four-season resort includes some shorefront development designed as part of a concept plan in conjunction with LURC, as well as a large piece of land protected with conservation easements.
“The smart way to do this would have been to go to the public before they had a plan,” Willard muses. “Meet with people in every town and lake association. Explain to them: ‘We need to make money on our investment. How would you like to see it done?’s That’s what I did. That’s what Big Squaw Mountain did. That’s not what Plum Creek did.”
And doing it smart now will mean a lot down the road, Willard adds. “What’s going to happen when the next million-acre landowner comes along with a big development plan?” he asks. “What happens now sets the pattern for the next one. We’ve been lucky that most of the land up here has been managed for timber production. But a development like this instantly pushes up the value of the land far beyond its timber value. There’s a guy who owns twenty thousand acres on the east side of the lake. Who knows what he will do now?”
And there may lie the single most important principle to come out of the Plum Creek application process. “I can point to at least five other landowners who are watching this and waiting to see how it turns out,” says Brownie Carson. “I think everyone is looking at how LURC handles this project as a signal for what the northern forest will look like in a generation or two. Will we still have large tracts of working forest, three- or four-week canoe trips through the wilderness, guide services, and sporting camps as the underpinnings of a new forest economy as the pulp and paper industry continues to shrink?”
The project faces at least a year of public hearings, LURC staff study, and public debate before any decision comes from the commission itself. And whatever it decides will almost undoubtedly spark legal challenges.
“We have to emerge from this with a plan that protects the fundamental character and economy and natural resources of the region and also provides a clear map of where appropriate development may occur,” Carson says. It needs to be a plan, he adds, “that at the end of the process we can all say will work for a generation, two generations. Maine and the Moosehead region are too valuable not to think that far ahead.”