Maine’s North Woods are a special place that faces an uncertain future.
Maine’s North Woods are the largest remaining undeveloped forest east of the Mississippi River. This NASA satellite image shows light pollution on the East Coast of the United States at night. Maine is outlined in green at the top. Northern Maine’s lack of light from development is a startling contrast to the rest of the eastern seaboard. The only other large dark spots remaining are the Great Lakes, and the Everglades.
This map of public roads further reveals how unique the North Woods region of Maine is. While there are private logging roads in the area it is almost completely free of paved public roads unlike any other part of the eastern United States.
Covering about 10.5 million acres, the North Woods of Maine are more than just a beautiful place. It is home to a collection of features not found anywhere in the eastern United States at this scale, more than 100 mountains over 3,000 feet, 3,000 lakes and ponds, and 11,000 miles of rivers and streams.
The North Woods have fueled the wood products and recreation industries of Maine for generations.
The remote and undeveloped nature of the region has made it a world-class destination for hikers, paddlers, fisherman and hunters.
The region provides critical habitat for many important species like the Canada lynx. The lynx are a federally listed threatened species and Maine’s North Woods host the largest remaining population in the lower 48 states.
The region is also the final stronghold for native Eastern Brook Trout.
Times are changing. 95% of Maine’s North Woods are privately owned. For generations the primary owners were paper companies and large families, closely associated with the industry, who took a long-term view of the land. But starting in 1998 everything changed. Since June of 1998, two-thirds of the land in Maine’s North Woods (about 7.1 million acres) have been put on the public auction block and changed hands.
The new owners are primarily investors, REIT’s (Real Estate Investment Trusts) and TIMO’s (Timber Investment Management Organizations). To them the land is purely a short-term investment. These types of investors typically only own land for 8-15 years and then sell and move on.
This map illustrates what the same information looks like on the ground. Industrial owners (in red) sold to investor entities (in blue) - a massive change in who owns the North Woods, bringing with it an equally massive change in what is expected from it.
Instead of focusing on managing the land for ongoing timber supplies for their mills, new owners are looking for every possible way to make money from the land. Subdividing large tracts of forest into lots can turn a $200 an acre purchase into a $40,000 per-acre return.
For the first time we are seeing large scale development proposals in the North Woods. One new owner, Plum Creek (a Seattle-based Real Estate Investment Trust), has proposed a massive development scheme for the Moosehead Lake region; the heart of Maine’s North Woods. Plum Creek’s proposal spreads across 400,000 acres with about 16,000 acres scheduled for development; the largest development ever proposed in Maine.
Maine has a long tradition of simple camps in the North Woods. Now under new development pressure, small rustic traditional Maine camps are giving way to…..
…large year-round houses on the shores of remote lakes and ponds. These new houses place a much different kind of pressure on the land, wildlife and community infrastructure in the region.
Unlike the former land owners, REIT’s and TIMO’s are willing to break-up their ownerships and sell large parcels to the highest bidder. Wealthy individuals are purchasing large tracts of land called “kingdom lots”. This $25+ million house sits on over 2,000 acres on the west shore of Moosehead Lake; land that was once used primarily for forestry and open to the public. It is common for kingdom lots to be posted ‘no trespassing’ and traditional public access lost.
These new landowners also bring with them new pressures. What was once a quiet and unfragmented forest is now a private jet runway; part of the $25 million house.
In their search for short-term profit, the new investor owners are less likely to manage in a way that protects wildlife and plant habitat. Heavy harvesting is a hallmark of REIT’s and TIMO’s.
Development is the biggest threat to the North Woods—once land is developed, it is gone forever from the forest base. Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), the planning board for the 10.5 million acres of Maine’s North Woods, has tracked development in the region since its inception.
Today (2009) the map has dramatically changed. Incremental development has begun to spread to the interior of Maine’s North Woods.
We are losing what makes this place unique.
How do we protect this amazing place for all of its important values—habitat, recreation, and sustainable forestry?
Increased public ownership could serve as a magnet to attract more visitors to the area. As jobs in the forest products industry decline, forest products dependent communities could diversify and augment their local economies with forest-based recreation tourism.
How do you think we should protect Maine’s North Woods?