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Building trust in the Maine woods.

A lanky landowner who takes the long view is becoming an increasing force for making minds meet over divisive forest-use issues.

Roger Milliken Jr. proposes an elegant solution to the controversy over protecting the East's vast northern forest: Compromise and give equal sensitivity to environmental and timber-industry needs.

Such advice might typically be ignored in a debate as heated as the one that has developed over the northern forests--those enormous woodlands that sweep across four states from the Maine woods to New York's Adirondacks. Instead, Milliken is not only being listened to; in Maine--his sphere of operations--he's even bringing the two sides together.

Milliken has a special stake in the outcome. He's president of Maine's Baskahegan Company, which directly controls 100,000 acres of timberlands in the 26-million-acre northern-forest region.

Milliken, 39, is not to be confused with his father--Roger Milliken Sr., the 75-year-old chairman of Milliken & Company. The elder Milliken presides over a mining, forestry, and real-estate empire that boasts an estimated $2.5 million in annual sales. The Baskahegan Company is but one corner of a family fortune that Fortune magazine last fall estimated at $1.2 billion.

The younger Milliken's status as an heir to that fortune may be what causes other titans of industry to take notice when he shares his views. His strong personal convictions are what have led him to openly connect his role in the forest debate with a spirituality rooted in Buddhism.

His belief in the ancient Buddhist concept of right livelihood--working sensitively with the environment to produce human benefits without negatively affecting natural systems--helped him achieve his first success as a mediator. Milliken played a pivotal role in forging a compromise aimed at permanently protecting the Maine wildlands without closing the land to industrial harvesting.

That compromise was the Forest Practices Act, approved by the Maine legislature in 1989. For the first time, the corporations that own most of the Maine wildlands must live with broad policies designed to sustain the forestlands, not only for timber production but also for wildlife habitat and public recreation. Perhaps most significantly, for the first time in Maine's history, the state is regulating the practice of clearcutting, whereby landowners strip a section of woods virtually bare.

This was a revolution in its own right for the landowners, large and small, who were accustomed to doing virtually anything they wanted with their land. "It was a de-facto recognition that the public has considerable say and power" in how the forest will be managed, Milliken says.

Participants from industrial, governmental, and environmental organizations agree that Milliken's participation was critical to the outcome. Ted Johnston, who as chief of the Maine Forest Products Council speaks for major landowners, and Everett Carson, who leads the state's biggest environmental organization--the Natural Resources Council of Maine--praise Milliken for having gained the trust of all sides. Johnston recently introduced Milliken at an industry meeting as the new conscience of Maine's forest landowners.

Ed Meadows, Maine's Conservation Department commissioner, credits Milliken with being the person who made sure the environmentalists and industrialists remained on speaking terms during the negotiations that led to the passage of the landmark legislation. Meadows remembers one occasion when the two dozen parties who took part in those talks found themselves stymied over priorities. "Roger devised an innovative scheme to come to consensus," Meadow recalls.

The commissioner credits Milliken's negotiation skills and his persistence. Milliken cites his ability to leave the tensions of the conference room behind by going home to rural Cumberland Center, outside Portland, and meditating to calm himself.

Although he acknowledges the stress guaranteed someone in his role, Milliken, lanky and loose-boned, doesn't show it externally. Years of Buddhist training have gifted him with composure and dispassion. "Through the practice, I have learned to listen and understand how to avoid being trapped in judgment when faced with points of view different from my own," he says. "It has given me a certain equanimity so I can help each side understand what the other camp is saying and cushion the divisive rhetoric . "

His skills are being tested again now as he catalyzes a discussion group over the future of the northern forest--one of the country's last largely undeveloped stretches of forest and one that is generally unknown in its breadth to most Americans. Behind the scenes of the intensifying debate among national and state special-interest groups, Milliken is trying to defuse conflict among Maine-based players--the Natural Resources Council, Maine Audubon Society, the Small Woodland Owners Association, the Sportsman's Alliance, and the Maine Forest Products Council. His hope is that they will be able to craft a consensus approach to preserving both public and private values in Maine's northern forest, which is 84 percent privately owned.

Milliken's involvement unquestionably makes him one of Maine's brightest new leaders, and he admits he may be interested in an "opportunity for a larger involvement" nationally in forest and environmental issues. "I continue to grow in my understanding of issues and balancing of the arguments," he says. "I've got my radar on for engagement outside Maine . "

Milliken's involvement with business, forest issues, and his growing family leaves him little time for anything else. He and his wife, Margot Wallach, have two children, Max, 7, and Tara, l. If Milliken has some free hours, he likes to be outdoors walking in the woods, pruning trees, or seeing if he can track animals. "I have very little time to read anymore, and I don't fish . . . or watch TV," he says.

The road to the equanimity that is Milliken's cachet began in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he entered Harvard University in 1971 and, while majoring in English, dabbled in various 5 religions. Striving to incorporate the legacies of his father--"an extremely ethical person" but a "man of the material world," says Milliken and his mother, whose interests run to art, poetry, and religion, Milliken found himself drawn to Buddhist teachings. He found them so compelling that he studied with Buddhist teachers following graduation and then, in 1976, left for Asia with an eye toward taking the vows of a monk.

Traveling through Nepal and India, Milliken realized that the monastic life was not his calling. Instead, he spent three years at the University of Hawaii translating scriptures from Pali--an ancient Sanskritic language--into English. In the end, he satisfied him self that the existing English translations were actually excellent and did not require further refinement. He returned to the East Coast with Margot, who began studying dance therapy while he took up writing, a decision that happened to bring him full circle back to the family business .

It seems that Roger Milliken Sr. wanted a history written of the family's Baskahegan Company, the remaining Maine-based component of a family fortune with its roots Down East. The Great Portland Fire of 1866 destroyed much of Maine's major seaport, including the dry-goods business founded by William Deering and Seth Milliken. The two took what remained--a boatload of potatoes-and went to New York City. There the partners began advancing money to textile manufacturers in exchange for the right to sell their finished goods. Eventually, they built their own mills throughout New England, including Maine. Deering went on to found International Harvester; Seth Milliken passed the mills on to his two sons, who moved the business to the South to capitalize on cheap labor.

This explains how Roger Milliken Jr. came to be raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina, while still retaining ancestral roots in Maine. In the summer of 1982, he set to digging at those roots at the behest of his father, who wanted that history of Baskahegan. Nine months later, Milliken found himself steeped in the history of the Maine woods and the saga of his own family. And he had found a permanent home.

The most tangible result was Forest for the Tres, a 140-page history (printed only for the Milliken family) that begins with grandfather Gerrish H. Milliken paying $890,000 in 1920 for 100,000 acres that became Baskahegan's timberlands. The family historian discovered that the next 20 years saw Baskahegan slashing through acres and acres in the interest of short-term profits. By 1940, the Baskahegan forest had been stripped of its best timber, and the family had to decide whether to sell the holdings or allow the land to heal.

The Millikens opted for healing. Foreshadowing Roger Milliken Jr.'s adoption of "right livelihood" as a mode of resource management, Gerrish Milliken decided "to tie down all the hatches and let the thing grow," in the words of Roger Sr.

Forty-five years later, Roger Jr. discovered that his family's "high standards of environmental management were not being realized," because the land's managers were overcutting the woods "to make the bottom line look fatter than last year's." Young Roger reached the conclusion that direct family oversight was the only way to "let the thing grow," as Gerrish had wanted. So Roger Jr. spent a year persuading Roger Sr. to let him take over in Maine.

As a result, Baskahegan has set about using advanced Scandinavian tree-harvesting equipment to tend its timberlands in an environmentally sustainable way. And Milliken has built enduring personal ties to both industry and environmental groups, serving as a vice president of the Maine Forest Products Council and as a director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine .

He also heads up the San Francisco-based Threshold Foundation, which raises and then gives away $1 million a year in six areas: peace, the environment, social justice, international affairs, arts and the media, and personal growth.

Milliken's impact has been palpable, not just because he became the key mediator in the passage of the Forest Practices Act, but also because Baskahegan has become a paradigm of how well a forest can be managed if stockholders are not demanding bigger dividends every quarter. Yes, Baskahegan has stockholders, but they are all family members who allow their kinsman to take an almost Zen-like approach to profits. "We're not shy about deferring income today to produce a better forest tomorrow," Milliken explains.

That sounds a lot like the policy pronouncements of the most ardent of Maine environmentalists. But it would be a mistake to assume that Milliken has simply concluded that environmentalists have unilaterally discovered the concept of "right livelihood" and industry ought simply to yield.

Maine can have it all-the working forest, and the protected environment," Milliken opines. But, he adds, to get there, "the debate has to move from the extremes of pure wilderness versus industrial slums. We must elevate our thinking from white hat-black hat, from good guy-bad guy dichotomies," he says, "to question the choices we're making in society and the costs."

These convictions inform Milliken's views on the policy challenges presented by the passage of the Forest Practices Act. The federally funded Northern Forest Lands Study, the Wilderness Society's proposed 2.7-million-acre Maine Woods Reserve, and the Natural Resources Council's proposed 7- to 9-million-acre North Woods Conservation Area present a wide menu of options for future action. They range from outright public purchase to conservation easements and the transfer of development rights. The key to preventing such proposals from becoming a "disaster," Milliken believes, is making sure that outsiders do not come to make the important decisions about the future of the Maine woods.

Outsiders don't appreciate the history and traditions of Mainers, whose ethic is the working forest, and use of the forest, he explains. And outsiders "don't understand the delicate balance we've struck that provides for the call of the loon, the sighting of a moose, and the working forest. Though they call themselves environmentalists, they are committing the cardinal ecological sin: They are marching into a complicated system-this one a complicated social, economic, and natural system--without bothering to understand it, and trying to manipulate it toward their own single-minded ends."

It is Maine's peculiar tradition, Milliken notes, that despite private land ownership, 90 percent is open to public access. "That doesn't exist anywhere else in the United States," he points out. And he does not see the major landowners simply walking away from Maine, as many in the state fear. Their concerns are based on watching Great Northern Nekoosa succumb in 1990 to a hostile takeover by Georgia Pacific, which then announced in 1991 it would sell its Maine operations to the Connecticut-based Bowater Corp. Ownership changes notwithstanding, Milliken predicts no major sellouts. "They've got billion dollar investments," he reasons. "No company in its right mind is going to walk away from that, even if they are black-hearted pirates. Stockholders wouldn't stand for it."

Milliken argues that out of the entrenched pattern of corporate ownership and out of Maine's tradition of public access to the vast private forest, a new Maine forest is rising from the remains of the overcut and misused woodlands. Milliken will work hard to make that new forest grow because he sees it as being in his family's best business interests, as the proper public policy option for Maine, and as compatible with the concerns that still tug at his soul as a result of his Buddhist practice.

"There's a question here for me of religious perception of natural systems," he says. "Is there a natural integrity to nature that needs respect? How mindful do I, do we, need to be of interfering with that? What are the living things that get harmed by single-minded, massive human intervention in the forest?"

Roger Milliken chose the corporate headquarters, rather than the monastery, as the place to pose those queries. With composure, dispassion, and clarity, he is discerning the answers--and in so doing, he is helping to assure a Maine woods that will continue long after ephemeral human creations like the Mine Forest Products Council, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, or the Baskahegan Company have passed from the scene.

Phyllis Austin works for the Maine Times as a reporter specializing in forestry issues.
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Title Annotation:Maine landowner Roger Milliken Jr.'s forest-use proposal
Author:Austin, Phyllis
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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