Sometime this fall the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) is expected to hand down its approval of Plum Creek’s massive development plan for the Moosehead Lake region. Back in 2005, when Plum Creek first submitted its plan, a friend of mine predicted how this saga would unfold: Plum Creek would begin by asking for twice as much as it wanted, allowing for the concessions it would have to make to come out at the end with just what it had wanted from the beginning.
Some might call my friend cynical; I would call him realistic; but however you view him, the upshot is clear. After four years of pitched battles between Plum Creek and its adversaries, after the investment of thousands upon thousands of dollars and countless hours put in by both professional and unpaid advocates on both sides of the issue — after all that, we seem poised to come out with precisely what opponents of the plan feared from the outset: a plan that will change management of a core region of the North Woods from a timberland, fishing, hunting, and camping model to one based on golf courses, marinas, destination resorts, and the proliferation of McMansions throughout the region.
Plum Creek’s Moosehead plan has not, of course, just appeared out of the blue but is the culmination of a gradual transformation in the Maine woods that began long before Plum Creek arrived on the scene. The incremental development and resulting sprawl we have seen in Maine’s Unorganized Territory over the last couple of decades was made possible by two major changes — one in technology, one in ownership — which proved to be mutually reinforcing.
The technological change was the widespread use of bulldozers in the post-World War II years to construct logging roads. Where there may have been some two thousand miles of gravel roads in the ten million acres of Maine’s unorganized townships right after the war, there are now some 20,000 private roads and 1,500 public roads. Those roads were built to haul logging machinery into the woods and haul huge truckloads of wood out to the mills, but where a logging truck can go, the sportsman’s Jeep, the family sedan, and the real-estate developer can follow. That gradually expanding road network made more and more country accessible to more and more people, and the more country more people see, the more places they find to build camps. First comes the modest weekend getaway, then the baronial year-round home, then the subdivisions (like Plum Creek’s own First Roach Pond subdivision with eighty-nine house lots), then the destination resorts.
Along with this opening of the North Woods to automobile traffic came, in these same years, increasing global competition in the paper industry, declining profitability from timberland management, and the realization by large landowners that more money could be made by selling their lands than by managing them for timber production. Into the 1990s, big paper companies still owned about two-thirds of Maine’s Unorganized Townships. In the last ten years, however, more than seven million acres in Maine’s North Woods have changed hands. Bowater, Georgia-Pacific, and International Paper have disappeared from the list of large landowners and been replaced by names like Timbervest, Irving Oil, Bayroot, and Plum Creek Real Estate Investment Corporation, some of them, just as their names indicate, real-estate investment companies that see their holdings not primarily as timberland but as bundles of assets, among which timber is by no means the most profitable.
Focused as they are on development and resale, some of the new landowners look to timber harvesting only as a source of short-term returns, and because they typically turn their holdings over within eight to twelve years, the desire for quick profit rather than long-term sustainability is often reflected in poor cutting practices.
What these trends add up to is the crippling (and ultimately the final decline) of the two traditional mainstays of Maine’s North Woods economy: outdoor recreation and the forest-products industry. Where there are small parcels whose owners have widely differing plans for the use of their properties, good long-term forest management on a landscape scale becomes well-nigh impossible, and the resources essential to hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and canoeing suffer as well.
Without good long-term forest management, good wildlife management becomes increasingly difficult. Landowners interested in short-term returns are likely to harvest heavily, on short rotations, and with little regard for wildlife habitat. Several cuts of deer yards in northern Maine in recent years attest to that. Considering that hunters and wildlife watchers contribute about $540 million annually to Maine’s economy, losses inflicted on Maine wildlife are losses to Maine’s economy, too.
But what has drawn visitors to the Maine woods from Thoreau’s time until today is not just the prospect of deer meat for the freezer or a panful of trout for supper. It’s the mystique of the North Woods, the promise of peace and quiet and a sense of remoteness in a beautiful setting far from the pressures of everyday life. That mystique is both fragile and priceless, an intangible and unquantifiable quality that nonetheless depends on the continuing existence of very tangible resources: water clean enough to drink, miles of lake shores and river banks where no electric lights pop on at night, and mountaintops where unbroken forest stretches off on all sides as far as the eye can see.
In the past, the lakes and rivers of northern Maine have been where generations of Mainers and visitors alike have gone to canoe and camp and enjoy the tranquility of remote, forested waterways. But water is just as attractive to developers as it is to canoeists; and in northern Somerset, Piscataquis, Penobscot, and Aroostook counties, it’s the region’s many lakes and ponds that have drawn development. Nearly half the building permits LURC has ever granted have been for lots right on or near water.
Waterfront property is in demand in western and Down East Maine, too; but in western Maine, there’s the additional threat of wind-power installations industrializing the region’s mountaintops with thirty or forty turbines and fragmenting the forest with the power lines needed to deliver the power to the grid. For landowners, of course, wind-power development is not a threat but another source of income from leasing mountaintop properties and rights-of-way for transmission lines.
Sprawl in the North Woods began, then, with the expansion of the woods road network and did indeed begin long before Plum Creek arrived in Maine, but Plum Creek’s concept plan makes all previous development ventures look Lilliputian. We’re in a new era; we’ve crossed a divide. Plum Creek’s plan has evoked such tremendous resistance because it has shown us at one blow how negligent we have been, how far toward catastrophe we have let this precious region drift without stepping in to save it.
Catastrophe? Come, come now. Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration? Don’t we have LURC ably defending the public’s interests in the Unorganized Townships? And what about all the large fee purchases of North Woods lands that conservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy have made? What about the joint state and non-governmental organization efforts that have protected thousands of acres with no-development, working-forest easements?
True, many organizations and many people both in the state government and outside it have risen to the occasion and negotiated some remarkable conservation deals. We are all in their debt, but we also have to recognize that these are rear-guard actions that cannot adequately protect this last ten-million-acre forest left in the eastern United States.
Working-forest easements are just that. They protect the forest from development and ensure the continuation of management for timber. But unless other conditions are written into the easements, they do not require high-quality silviculture, nor do they guarantee protection for wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, or public access for low-impact outdoor recreation in a remote, semi-wild setting.
Fee purchases by conservation organizations provide a much greater level of protection for multiple values, but large as some of these purchases may be, they remain piecemeal. Also, wealthy as some of these organizations may be, they are not wealthy enough to buy up the millions of acres needed to prevent dismemberment of the North Woods into a patchwork of residential and industrial fiefdoms.
As for LURC, it does not and never has had the power to halt development. With more than 90 percent of the lands in LURC’s jurisdiction privately owned, how could it be otherwise? The state cannot deny landowners the uses of their property. LURC has not been charged, after all, with keeping the jurisdiction an unbroken forest but with striking a balance between public and private interests. That is a formula for the incremental sprawl that has taken place in the North Woods over the last several decades. But what the Plum Creek battle has made clear is that, when faced with a project as large as Plum Creek’s, LURC ’s balancing act results in unacceptable losses for the public. Despite the concessions opponents to the plan have been able to win, the changes it will bring to the Moosehead region are not incremental but massive and transformative. The plan is still just too big for the Moosehead region to absorb without losing its defining character. And what bodes ill for Moosehead Lake bodes ill for the Maine woods.
So what is to be done? Maybe nothing. One line of wishful thinking says the current recession may be giving Plum Creek second thoughts. Plum Creek may even pull the plug on its plan and back out. Even if it doesn’t, and if LURC does approve the plan, the recession will surely reduce demand for house lots in the North Woods. Things may not turn out so badly after all.
I’m less sanguine. Plum Creek’s concept plan is good for thirty years. That’s plenty of time for economic recovery. The recession could well put a temporary crimp in Plum Creek’s plan, but that does not solve the long-term problem of the North Woods’ continuing vulnerability.
In the end, we may well have reason to thank Plum Creek for rousing us out of our laissez-faire lethargy. If we hadn’t understood before, we surely must understand now that leaving free-market forces in control is a sure path to the fragmentation and loss of the last large stronghold of relatively wild land left in the Northeast. If the public is going to continue to have guaranteed access to the Maine woods and have access to woods that are worth having access to, the public has to own those woods.
The goal should be some large, road-free wilderness areas closed to logging and all motorized vehicles and surrounded by well-managed timberlands where motorized recreation would be allowed and where biodiversity, scenic beauty, clean waterways, and flourishing fisheries and wildlife would be maintained. Ideally, the state of Maine would act to make that vision of the North Woods a reality, but the legislature has never been willing to impose a regulatory regimen that would make that possible, and even if there had been the political will to acquire large blocks of land and manage them in accordance with that vision, the state has never had funds enough to do that.
So by default this job falls to the federal government. In the past, mere mention of the feds having any hand in the Maine woods has evoked howls of protest from some folks. From others, among them many devoted conservationists, the response has been, “Well, yes, maybe sometime, but for now it’s not politically feasible.” But then Plum Creek came to town, and faced with the possibility that Moosehead Lake might become Winnipesaukee North and set a precedent for similar developments throughout the North Woods, some
former skeptics are beginning to think the idea of federal ownership is not so far-fetched after all.
Many Mainers are reluctant to cede control over large blocks of Maine land to the federal government, preferring home-grown management instead. But ultimate control of the North Woods is not now and never has been in Mainers’ hands. Just as the home offices of some of the big paper companies have been as far away as Atlanta, Georgia, and Johannesburg, South Africa, so, too, many of the new landowners — like Plum Creek with its headquarters in Seattle — are based out of state.
With federal ownership, Mainers would have a voice in determining which of several types of government holdings Maine would have and how those holdings would be managed. Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area — a federally designated wilderness within a National Forest — has always seemed to me the most promising model for Maine. That combination guarantees continued timber management in the National Forest component and allows for hunting throughout the entire ownership. But exactly what the combination of components and their respective sizes and shapes should be — that ought to be and must be the subject of a long conversation among all the stakeholders here in Maine.
Public ownership would not mean, of course, that Maine’s wildlands and woodlands would then be safe from exploitation for all time. Federal managers all too friendly toward industry have allowed destructive harvests and road building in national forests, and there are always forces that want to whittle away at wilderness areas, as the history of Baxter State Park amply demonstrates. The price of defending conservation lands is, like the price of freedom, eternal vigilance. But what the public owns it has the right to exert control over. Over what it does not own, it has next to no control.
So before our big woods country — like Humpty Dumpty — is shattered into so many pieces it can’t be put back together again, all of us who care about keeping it intact need to put our differences aside and advocate for large-scale federal ownership. Whether we are ATVers or hikers, snowmobilers or cross-country skiers, bird hunters or bird watchers, paper makers or paper readers, we all stand to lose if the present rate of land trading and development continues.
And keep in mind, too, that this isn’t just about a few “high-value” resources we can cordon off and let everything else around them go to the dogs. It’s not just about the Allagash or the Appalachian Trail, not just this mountain here and that lake or river there. It’s about the whole shooting match from Pocomoonshine Lake in the east to Aziscohos Lake in the west, from the Machias River in the south to the St. John in the north. It’s about one of the last great places left in these United States, not wilderness, but a place still rich with the sights and sounds of the wild.
Look, and I do mean look, this is a place of exquisite beauty, complexity, and variety, of headwater streams and mountain vistas, of gray jays and winter wrens, of huge old yellow birches too big for two men to wrap their arms around, of ravens quorking, moose swimming across Attean Pond, of rhodora and Labrador tea, and on and on. If you can’t thrill to this place, you’re dead on your feet. It’s not a “resource,” it’s not “the environment,” it’s a ten-million-acre miracle, one with plenty of nicks, scrapes, and deep wounds in it, but a miracle nonetheless, one we can rescue if we can just summon the will. So let’s get at it. We’ve got work to do together.