It becomes apparent immediately to visitors arriving in the town of Greenville why the Moosehead Lake region evokes strong emotions.
The 40-mile-long lake, dotted with small islands, is part of a vast stretch of wilderness that has attracted outdoor enthusiasts for years. The name of the lake is apt – it’s difficult for a visitor to avoid seeing one or more of the state’s lumbering moose, a symbol of Maine’s wild places.
Now, the region’s future has entered the spotlight.
Plum Creek Timber Co. has proposed a 30-year plan for development and conservation involving 465,000 acres in the unorganized territories around the lake.
It’s an idea that’s been greeted with excitement, caution and fear. It’s no wonder – it’s an unprecedented plan, the most comprehensive and extensive one ever proposed in the state.
It has the potential to boost the economy in Greenville and surrounding communities. It also has the potential to alter the character of a wilderness gem.
Some residents want a six-month moratorium on development so Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission, which regulates development in the state’s 10.4 million acres of unorganized territory, has a chance to come up with a vision for the Moosehead region.
That task should have been completed years ago. The agency recognized in its 1997 comprehensive plan update the need for more planning in four desirable areas, including the Moosehead region. Only a plan for the Rangeley Lakes region has been finished, and that process took seven years.
LURC rejected the petition for a six-month delay, instead deciding to proceed with both the Plum Creek approval process and the Moosehead plan simultaneously.
The agency should reconsider.
While the Plum Creek plan appears to be balanced and worthwhile, it still needs to be reviewed, and it’s difficult to see how both projects can be given the attention they need. That concern is compounded by the fact that agency officials aren’t even sure how they’re going to approach either process.
LURC also is in the process of updating its comprehensive plan for the entire 10.4 million acres, and it still must handle the 1,200 applications for development it receives each year.
Given the competing demands, a large-scale development such as the Plum Creek proposal should be put on hold for that six-month period so that LURC and state officials have a chance to decide how to best handle them.
This is particularly important in this instance, because what happens with the Plum Creek proposal will shape the direction of the future for Maine’s wild areas. It has the potential to set a precedent that will be watched carefully by other large landowners in Maine. It also calls into question the ability of LURC to juggle adequately the massive work that lies ahead. If the Plum Creek proposal was a surprise, then more such proposals shouldn’t be.
PLUM CREEK’S PROPOSAL
In 1998, Plum Creek purchased 905,000 acres of Maine forestland from Sappi Fine Paper North America, making the company one of the largest landowners in the country. Plum Creek is primarily a timber and wood-products company, but also deals in real estate development.
The company has maintained the relationship that residents and visitors have shared with industrial owners of the land for years. Campers, fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts are able to use the land, upholding a longtime Maine tradition.
Plum Creek officials say they don’t intend to change that. Some residents and visitors fear, however, that the timber company’s plans will change the character of the area, deterring the type of visitors who relish the particular kind of experience that can only be found in the Moosehead region.
“The reason everybody comes here to live or visit, is this is a special, special place,” said Bob Guethlen, who lives in Rockwood on the west side of the lake with his wife, Diane. The Guethlens led the petition drive for the moratorium on development until LURC creates a land use plan.
“This is really an epiphany moment,” Guethlen said.
There’s no doubt it would have been better to first create a plan for the Moosehead region and then talk about how Plum Creek’s proposal fits into it. How can the largest woodland development plan the state has ever seen be approved before Moosehead’s vision is solidly in place?
The Moosehead region is part of the largest contiguous forest east of the Mississippi.
Plum Creek would like to develop up to 11,000 acres, including 575 vacation shorefront properties and 400 back lots, two possible resorts and a commercial development near Greenville.
This plan is significant not only because of its size, but also because of its length: It outlines everything the company plans to develop over the next 30 years.
That has its advantages. It shows the community how much development would occur and on what schedule.
It also scares people.
Outside the Rockwood Trading Post, in the shadow of Mt. Kineo, owner Jim Fisk said he was skeptical about the proposal.
“Having escaped Cape Cod and Winnipesaukee, what do you think we’re worried about?” Fisk said. “Along with the people come the rules, and regulations, and taxes, and everything else that comes with the hordes as they come.”>/p>
Having the Plum Creek development plan in place, however, could lend a stability to the region, and that would help attract and regain forest product companies and other businesses because they know what’s going to happen with the resource they depend on, said John Simko, Greenville’s town manager.
“In my opinion, the public has a hard time digesting this because they quantify literally 500-and-some-odd pages (of the plan) with what this area will look like or could look like 30 years from now,” Simko said. “And that is obviously different from what people see now. People intellectually know the area will change. Emotionally, they react as though the future is static.”>/p>
Simko makes an important point about stability, though that stability only lasts as long as the 30-year zoning does.
Under the plan, 382,000 acres of land would be zoned as working forest for 30 years. Plum Creek officials characterize such zoning as virtually permanent because the zoning would automatically renew at 20-year increments. That’s highly misleading, though, because developers have the right to petition LURC at those times.
That’s why it’s absolutely vital for the state to have a plan in place for the future of the area, one that identifies areas that should be permanently preserved.
Residents of nearby towns, including Greenville, differ on the proposal. Some haven’t decided what they think, but they understand the impact the project will have.
“I’m glad I’m not sitting on LURC’s board,” said Dan Legere, owner of the Maine Guide Fly Shop in Greenville. “This is going to be a huge learning process, and it’s going to shape the development of wilderness for a long time to come.”>/p>
ECONOMY AND ECOLOGY
The state’s 1997 comprehensive plan notes that the Moosehead Lake region economy has traditionally been based in natural resources, including forest products and recreation. Hunting and fishing, it said, “have historically generated substantial economic benefit to local communities.”>/p>
Nature-based tourism, including back-country hiking, wildlife viewing and the like, was acknowledged as a growing source of income.
Sandy Neily, a Greenville resident who has worked on environmental and tourism issues, said the state must consider the value of leaving the region a traditional wilderness area and the impact that altering it would have on the local economy.
She rightly points out that the comprehensive plan says the state can’t approve a project that would harm the economy of the area. Plum Creek officials say they’re trying to balance the interests of many different people. Whether or not the proposal successfully does that is something for LURC – with the input of local residents – to decide.
Plum Creek has outlined permanent conservation easements that would create new hiking and snowmobile trails and protect remote ponds. Other permanent conservation easements would buffer new developments against old and ensure a setback from shorelines.
Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said that what appears to be permanent may not be.
The organization said the Plum Creek could require snowmobile and hiking trails to be moved at taxpayer expense at any time, that permanent pond easements include ponds that can’t be developed anyway, and easements on the ponds wouldn’t be completed until all 400 back lots have been developed. She also said that the new resorts and other developments could mean up to a thousand more homes, condos, cabins and rental units.
Lehner said that the trails would only be moved if there was a forestry operation in the area and then only on a temporary basis – and certainly not at taxpayer expense. He said Plum Creek was still working on when all of the pond easements would be established, and that the 975 lots that are proposed as a part of the development include everything related to the resorts.
The Guethlens pointed out that even though most of the land isn’t slated for development, most of what is so designated is on shorefront property, and said the permanent easements between properties are inadequate. They didn’t argue with having a development project but said the amount and rate of growth are too much, too fast.
Plum Creek officials point out that the development they’re planning for the next 10 to 15 years is no greater than what’s occurred over the past 20 years.
That’s a point of contention, too. The Natural Resources Council of Maine says the average rate of development in Maine’s unorganized territories in the past would suggest that about 250 new homes would be built in an area that size during the next 30 years. The state’s comprehensive land use plan says 452 building permits were issued between 1971 and 1991 in the Moosehead Lake region.
Whether these conservation easements and buffers are adequate – and whether the rate and placement of the development is reasonable – is something that LURC should examine carefully.
The Land Use Regulatory Commission’s comprehensive plan, which was last updated in 1997, covers Maine’s 10.4 million acres of unorganized territory.
The agency recognizes the need for more specialized planning in areas of high interest and rapid growth. It has completed a “prospective zoning” plan for the Rangeley Lakes area, and plans to complete these more extensive plans for the Carrabasset Valley region, the Millinocket region and the Moosehead Lake region.
Still, the fact that the agency hasn’t completed its prospective zoning plans is a signal that it either is unable to do so in a timely manner or hasn’t anticipated the scale of development that would be proposed. It’s questionable whether the agency is up to its task.
LURC officials don’t think it will be a problem to conduct the review process for the Plum Creek project while developing a prospective zoning plan for Moosehead. They say the development of the Rangeley plan has streamlined the process for the remaining areas, so Moosehead’s process won’t take that long.
They plan to divert staff to the Plum Creek project, and say most of the agency’s other applications deal with very minor projects. Catherine Carroll, director of LURC, said the agency’s 22-person staff is about to add two planners who will focus on long-term planning issues as well.
Even with the extra staff members, LURC is taking on a lot. Neither does the agency yet know whether it will incorporate public hearings on the Moosehead plan into hearings about Plum Creek or exactly what either process will look like.
Carroll did say it would include “as many meetings as it takes” and would be open to the public. The Rangeley planning process included more than 50 LURC meetings.
The Legislature should, however, examine whether LURC can add even more staff, whether the State Planning Office should get involved or if LURC can be reorganized to better handle the massive issues before it.
LURC has a colossal responsibility in this. Maine residents and visitors can’t count on publicly and privately funded conservation projects such as Land for Maine’s Future to preserve all their wild areas. LURC should to ensure that the state’s character and special resources aren’t compromised, while at the same time still allowing Maine to grow and realize its potential.
That, of course, is the challenge – and the challenge has just grown exponentially. The state must ensure that the agency responsible for the state’s wilderness regions can do its job the way it should be done.