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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Maine Woods National Park Proposed

Air Date: Week of

There is a proposal for the protection of as much as ten percent of the forests in Maine for public land use. As Susan Chisolm reports, the idea of a Maine Woods National Forest is getting some attention, and a mixed reaction.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Large land management companies own much of the vast forest of northern Maine. And in October, several corporations sold 2-1/2 million acres to 3 rival timber firms. In the huge land deal, ownership of 10% of Maine changed hands. It was a reminder that the vast area of wilderness regrown from the last century is a private resource that could be cut at any time. Some say the public should acquire a portion of the land, perhaps even create a Maine woods national park, and others say the private sector is able to protect the forest. Susan Chisolm has our story.

(Running stream water)

CHISOLM: It would be the second largest national park in the lower 48 states: 3.2 million acres encompassing hundreds of remote lakes and ponds. The headwaters of Maine's major rivers. Part of the Appalachian Trail. And miles and miles of red spruce, white pine, and birch. The largest remaining expanse of wilderness east of the Mississippi. The same place made famous by Henry David Thoreau when he explored the Maine woods 150 years ago.

ST. PIERRE: We're just trying to focus people's attention on a place that is big enough so that it would provide the kind of landscape-scale protection that conservation biology says that we need. And it would be big enough so that we could spread people out. We could have something for everybody.

CHISOLM: Jym St. Pierre heads the Maine chapter of Restore the North Woods, a Massachusetts-based environmental group that first proposed creation of the Maine Woods National Park and Preserve in 1994. From the top of Big Spencer Mountain, St. Pierre surveys several of Maine's most pristine lakes.

ST. PIERRE: It does remind me of Thoreau's description when he climbed the shoulder of Katahdin and looked out on the landscape, and described the scene as if it were a mirror that had been broken into a thousand fragments, glittering in the sun on the grass.

CHISOLM: Historically, this vast frontier has been owned by a handful of paper companies who have used it to feed their mills and offered free access to the public. Under Restore's plan, clear-cuts and logging roads would be allowed to grow wild. Commercial development would be restricted. And the entire area would remain open to hiking, fishing, and camping. A preserve would also be established to allow other popular kinds of recreation, like hunting, trapping, and snowmobiling.

CANDELORO: How are we doin'?

(A man's voice answers on a speaker)

CHISOLM: Fred Candeloro runs a trading post near Moose Head Lake, where he caters to outdoor enthusiasts.

CANDELORO: No, I'm not crazy about a national park. Right now, we have the best use of this land in the country. We have free access to pretty much whatever you want to do on it short of damaging the property, okay? And with the National Park, because you're going to be buying the land, to limit access for what the individual wants to do on it.

(A bird chirps)

CHISOLM: Ultimately, it will be up to the public to decide whether the proposed park becomes more than the notion of a few wilderness romantics. While most of this region is undeveloped, a place where moose and bear easily outnumber people, it is also the heart of Maine's working forest. St. Pierre argues that jobs in the forest products industry are on the decline in Maine, and that the state needs to diversify its economy. Such talk infuriates property rights activists like Mary Adams.

ADAMS: What is happening, really, is we're being invaded by environmentalists up in Maine. They'd like to have this whole place turned into a kind of an aboriginal park, and we probably could be native specimens for tourists from somewhere else to come and look at.

CHISOLM: Recently, the Maine Forest Service published a report that shows logging is not being done on a sustainable basis in Maine. Over cutting is estimated at between 7 and 14% every year. The report suggested that more trees need to be grown to make up for the gap. That typically means using clear-cutting and herbicide spraying to help softwood trees grow faster. And Jeff Toorish of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association says, plunking down a park in the middle of the Maine woods will only increase forest management pressures.

TOORISH: It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you take millions of acres out of the productive forest, stop having them for that use, that you're going to put a great deal more pressure on the rest of the woods.

CHISOLM: But supporters say the proposed park would represent only a fifth of Maine's commercial forest land. Although they agree that the park's potential economic impact is largely unknown. And with the recent sale of 900,000 acres of Maine woods to Plum Creek, a Seattle-based timber company with a reputation for selling land to real estate developers, there has also been a loud cry from editorial writers, business people, and environmental activists, who argue that parts of this landscape should be preserved. Ruth McLaughlin and her husband Dan run the Blair Hill Inn in Greenville.

R. McLAUGHLIN: I think our primary concern is that somebody be in a little more control and a little more aware of what's going to happen with this land. That it doesn't just all go to private companies that then can do whatever they want with it. That there is some state and national funding that might be able to purchase part of the land and keep it in its natural format.

CHISOLM: There is also increasing interest from outside of Maine to do something to prevent the Maine woods from being converted into a giant subdivision.

POPE: I am really proud to call myself a tremendous fan of America's next great national park, the Maine Woods National Park.

CHISOLM: Carl Pope is the national director of the Sierra Club.

POPE: This is not going to happen all at once, and it's not going to happen next year. It'll probably take a decade or more. And it's going to be put together, I imagine, in pieces. The state will buy some pieces. Private individuals and conservancies will buy some pieces.

CHISOLM: Pope says the Sierra Club will become a major player in Maine and in Washington to build national support for the park. But the proposed park and preserve has already provoked a few northern Maine residents to threaten to secede from the rest of the state. And many opponents say if the park idea advances, the rest of Maine should be prepared for a political rebellion from those who consider the Maine woods their own backyard. For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Chisolm.



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