Our precious commodity of pristine forest is for everyone’s benefit.
By Ken Allen
Portland Press Herald op-ed
In my early 20s, I spent two glorious summers camping near Ripogenus Dam on the Penobscot River’s West Branch, which included huge woodlands, myriad waters and Baxter State Park for recreation.
Back then, the West Branch enjoyed a reputation as a top landlocked-salmon destination – and for good reason. Most evenings found me on the north shore between Steep Bank Pool and Big Ambejackmockamus Falls below Ripogenus Falls. Back then, most anglers fished the south bank on the roadside, but I opted for solitude on the hard-to-reach north side. I avoided the overcrowded Big Eddy like a plague.
After the two West Branch summers, I’d camp at least two weeks near the West Branch every June. What memorable times of fly fishing and campfires fill my head from those halcyon days.
Maine was just outlawing river log and pulp-wood drives, so with reckless abandon large landowners started building roads through forests to harvest and transport wood to mills. An outbreak of spruce budworm spurred the industry to cut infested trees before they rotted on the stump – the excuse for clear-cuts, but back then they didn’t selective-cut anyway. New gravel roads passed seemingly endless clear-cuts, and whether it was right or wrong, such devastation flabbergasted newcomers to the region, including me. It looked as if the Great American Dream had gone awry.
Back then, local characters in the region explained the future problems to me – as they saw it. However, none of these woodland pundits predicted national and international companies buying the huge forests or the exploding growth of river rafting. Few foresaw the economic importance of bear hunting over bait.
For decades, locals had looked at big landowners as rich uncles who had their peculiar ways but were still revered because of their generous attitude about public access.
When the idea of a national park caught my eye a quarter century ago, locals fiercely opposed it, surprising me. We already had a successful model – Baxter State Park – but opponents of a new park complained that Baxter had more regulations than most every other region of northern Maine. Folks wanting a national park were tenacious, though, and they persevered. They’ll win in the end.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine just released the results of a public opinion survey for the proposed new national park and recreation area, which showed support for the 150,000-acre plan east of Baxter. Registered Maine voters from both ends of the state approved of it by a two-to-one margin. Support grew to three-to-one after proponents explained “a simple, factual description of the proposal.” That last comment captures my attitude about the idea – what’s not to like? The plan offers long-term access, including hiking, fishing, hunting and snowmobiling.
For several years, news stories about Millinocket, Medway and other communities in this vast region have highlighted the economic struggles there. More tourism options, such as a 150,000-acre woodlands east of Baxter, would dramatically improve this narrative, a continuing story that we have seen worldwide. I’ve visited national parks on this continent and beyond that have booming economies, and often the most severe complaint about these places is a problem that towns like Millinocket might enjoy. Too many tourists elsewhere have created overcrowding. Imagine, too many people spending too much money. However, regulations or access impediments can govern visitor numbers, and places such as Alaska’s Denali National Park already have lottery systems to reduce travelers to manageable figures.
There are obvious truths about Maine’s northern woodlands, beginning with the fact that millions and millions of people live one or two day’s drive away. Also, no one is making pristine forests anymore, so we have a precious commodity that multimillionaires and certainly multibillionaires can buy and then choose what they want for access rights for visitors.
As a general rule, national parks and recreation areas work for the little people as much as for high rollers. It’s a system with a long history going back to the Old World. In Maine, now is the time for making a new national park and recreational area a reality, and I suspect that we’ll see compromises in this idea that give us all a fair shake.
I cannot leave this topic without mentioning a point I have made here before. Across this nation, hunting leases for many species, including the ever popular white-tailed deer. are the norm. In northern and eastern Maine, hunting leases never caught on, because in these regions, the deer population numbers one to two whitetails per square mile – a difficult resource to sell to hunters. Otherwise, hunting leases would have taken off in this state during the 1970s, an appealing option. (I’d have bought into the system if the Maine deer herd were larger.) In short, in most places, folks often buy land, lease or hunt public land, but Maine has limited government public land.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer.