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Maine Woods: millions of acres of forest in Maine could become the second largest national park in the Lower 48.

Jon Luoma couldn't believe his eyes while canoeing around a bend on Maine's Saint John River last spring, but there they stood--sort of: two moose calves, only hours old and still on their knees right in front of him, struggling to straighten their spindly legs. "I'd seen young moose calves walking around and eating leaves with their mothers before," says Luoma. "But in the 30 years I've been coming here, it was the first time I'd ever seen anything like this."

Welcome to the North Woods, the last great wilderness east of the Mississippi, a world of jaw-dropping wildlife encounters and staggering scenery. It's here that loons dive for crayfish on a pond near Moosehead Lake, where the breaking sun backlights groves of stately trees, and clouds of golden mist float above crystal ponds and lakes at dawn. Fish jump, owls hoot, coyotes croon, and moose still outnumber people amid an endless expanse of rolling woodland that, increasingly, is dotted with "No Trespassing" signs.

For more than 150 years some 10 million acres in Maine--half of the land in the state--rested in the hands of paper barons who shared an unwritten covenant with the people of Maine: Let us chop down all the trees we please, and we'll guarantee you open access to hike, hunt, and fish. That changed drastically when paper companies, facing global competition in recent years, began shedding their vast kingdom to improve their bottom line, putting more and more land into the hands of foreign companies, investment firms, and real estate developers.

So much land has changed hands in recent years that some people believe if permanent land protection isn't in place soon, the last vestige of what was once an unbroken swath stretching from Maine to the Midwest will drown in a sea of subdivisions and shopping malls that have already claimed much of the East Coast. There's also a fear that the new breed of landowners might want to limit the privilege of hunting, hiking, or snowmobiling on their private expanses to friends and family or exclude outsiders altogether.

One solution to the land grab is an ambitious scheme to turn a sizeable portion into a national park. (For details on that process, see "Q&A," page 14). The proposed 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve would secure an area larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. Surrounding Baxter State Park, it would encompass the Hundred Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail, protect cold-water lakes for brook trout, and safeguard thousands of miles of clear-running streams and rivers, including the headwaters of five of the region's most legendary--the Allagash, Aroostook, Kennebec, Penobscot and St. John. And, of course, all this land would provide unfragmented habitat for iconic animals such as bears, panthers, wolves, elk and moose, as well as imperiled species such as lynx, Atlantic salmon, and spruce grouse. Surprisingly, it's all in the backyard of one of the country's most densely populated regions.

"Northern Maine has sort of been forgotten in the last hundred years," says Luoma, an avid North Woods canoeist and 30-year resident of Maine. "Now, suddenly, with so much of the timber companies' land up for grabs, it's back in play."

According to most polls, a majority of Maine residents would like to see Congress designate part of the enormous area as a national park. But it would have to happen soon, while the land is still affordable. "Development is causing property prices to skyrocket," says Luoma. "If something isn't done now, the North Woods will be fragmented forever."

But not everyone in Maine favors the park--even those who regularly retreat into the remote expanse have their reservations. In fact, some are downright hostile to the idea.

"Hold on," says Robert Meyers, president of Maine's Snowmobile Association, when asked for his thoughts. "Let me switch to another phone. I might start yelling." Although Meyers was joking about the shouting, he's dead serious when he says that a national park in Maine amounts to a federal takeover. "If the government steps in, it'll start limiting access to the forest for hunting and snowmobiling," he says. "The developers and companies that hold the land right now manage it for all recreation, not just hiking and kayaking. It's actually the conservation buyers we have to worry about. They tend to think they know better than we do, and everything they do is geared toward limited access."

Although he doesn't mention anyone by name, it's obvious he's talking about Roxanne Quimby, a multimillionaire who made a small fortune with the all-natural Burt's Bees cosmetic line and started using her new-found wealth to buy sweeping portions of Maine's wild lands about five years ago to ensure their permanent protection (see sidebar, "A Personal Quest").

Until recently, Quimby had hoped to donate the 50,000 acres of contiguous land she now owns--the equivalent of Acadia National Park--to the National Park Service as part of the 3.2-million-acre planned park. But when arguments against the park turned into personal attacks against her, she decided to quietly bow out of the debate for now, though her hopes for the land remain intact. "The people who oppose the park because they think it will impede their access to land don't seem to understand that the alternative to public property is private property," says Quimby.

They also seem to focus only on the "park" part of the Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. According to the proposal, the park would prohibit hunting, trapping, and snowmobiling, but in the preserve--size to be determined--all existing recreation would continue.

"If I were a snowmobiler or a hunter, I would feel safer knowing that I had a preserve where I'll always have guaranteed access somewhere," says Elisabeth Kay, a Yarmouth resident who got hooked on conservation issues while working at the environmentally friendly clothing company Patagonia. "It's not like it was 50 years ago when the same companies owned the land for 150 years. Ownership patterns continue to change dramatically, and if the land is in private hands, the public is guaranteed nothing."

Ironically, many of the Maine residents most riled by Quimby's land-buying spree favor a Plum Creek Timber Company's plan to develop some 26,000 acres in prime wilderness. The reason: Plum Creek pledges to allow unrestricted public access to a majority of its land--when it gets done carving it up, that is (see sidebar, "Plum Creek: A Sign of Things to Come?").

Park backers also face another challenge: Leaders in the towns of Greenville and Millinocket, which would become gateways into the park, oppose it. "We have wood baskets all around us feeding the mills," says John Simko, manager of Greenville. "If you turn the Northeast into a national park, there'd be no more harvesting timber, we'd probably have to close the facilities, and the only jobs would be flipping burgers."

Except the mills are closing anyway. In once-bustling Millinocket, two paper mills provide only half the jobs they once offered, and the main street is scarred with boarded-up shops. But they could see the light of day again with a national park on their doorsteps, says Jym St. Pierre, executive director of the Concord, Massachusetts, nonprofit RESTORE: The North Woods. "It would be an economic engine lifting the area out of its doldrums," he says.

A RESTORE-commissioned study found that the proposed national park and preserve could bolster the state's economy with between $109 million and $435 million in annual retail sales and support 5,000 to 20,000 jobs. It also found that over the last 30 years, residents in communities surrounding national parks in the Lower 48 saw their income grow twice as fast as the national average, with job growth almost three times the national average.

"Look at Asheville, North Carolina, the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park [in North Carolina and Tennessee]," says Quimby. "It's a collection of artists, galleries, retirees, investment banks, hospitals, and lawyers--an eclectic community where people want to live because the natural beauty is protected. Nobody's flipping burgers--and if they are, it's the same people that would be flipping them anywhere else."

Of course, the transition could cause some residents to falter initially, as they struggle to change careers in a new economy. "But the people of these towns know better than anyone what is happening to the dying timber industry," says Kay. "It might be scary at first, but they should also be thinking about the future, about where their kids are going to grow up and work." Given that national parks don't just spring up overnight, park proponents argue that the economic impacts associated with the park, both positive and negative, would spread over a long period of time, giving adjacent communities time to adjust.

RESTORE is working to persuade Congress to launch a feasibility study, but its leaders already estimate that buying land for the park would cost about $1 billion. It's a hefty price, but one that more and more people are willing to pay: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a public park that would benefit all Americans for all time," says St. Pierre. "Think about what Yellowstone would look like now had it not been protected," he says. "Have you ever heard someone say that they wished the federal government hadn't made it a park?"

RELATED ARTICLE: A personal quest.

Roxanne Quimby admits she can't tell the difference between a spruce and a fir, but many people would argue she doesn't have to: She's been seeing the forest through the trees all her life.

Before she was a multimillionaire, Quimby chose to live without running water or electricity in a cabin in the Maine woods, raising twins on $3,000 a year, determined to live simply and without compromising her environmental ideals.

"I grew up in the 1960s and was very idealistic," she says. "I wanted to change the world, but then I realized without money you can't be heard." So she co-founded the all-natural cosmetics line Burt's Bees with her husband, "pursuing money in what I felt was an environmentally sound livelihood," she says.

Now, determined to leave a greater legacy, Quimby recently sold a controlling interest in the company to pursue her real dream: To ensure that a huge parcel of undeveloped land in northern Maine remains protected, ideally as a national park. "Burt's Bees was just a means to an end," she says. "I want my legacy to be about helping to raise consciousness, so that people realize it's not just about them but about the whole web of life."

RELATED ARTICLE: Plum Creek: a sign of things to come?

In 1998, the Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber Company bought nearly a million acres surrounding Moosehead Lake--New England's largest lake--from South African Pulp and Paper Industries, which, while simultaneously soothing the public's fears about clear-cutting the land, leveled tens of thousands of acres of trees in the four years before selling it. Like its predecessor, Plum Creek also allayed local residents' fears, saying it had no development plans.

Fast-forward to 2005. With one subdivision under its belt on the first of a series of ponds called the Roaches, Plum Creek began moving forward with plans this spring to develop 975 house lots--more than half of them on shorefront property--three RV parks, two resorts (including one golf course), and a 1,000-acre commercial or industrial park.

In the spirit of conservation--required by the state--Plum Creek is committing to a 30-year "no development" zone for 70 percent of the land. To win the support of recreationists, it's allowing for a 71-mile snowmobile trail easement, along with a similar 55-mile hiking trail.

"And this is all for free," says George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. "Unlike Roxanne Quimby's property, Plum Creek is completely open to our use, and we also get a lot of conservation without paying any money."

Joan Wisher has a different take. She says that she and other neighbors who live on Roach Pond in traditional cabins without electricity or running water have paid a hefty price these last few years. Early on, Plum Creek managed to smooth-talk them, she says, by telling them its plan would move slowly over a 25-year period. "In fact 80 percent of the lots were sold within the first year, leaving residents to suffer through construction chaos for more than two years," she says. "They brought in suburban houses with all the amenities and literally made us a dust bowl."

One long-time resident lost his favorite fishing spot, a place he had visited since 1959. Barred owls and great horned owls, which had raised their young in a heavily wooded stretch along the pond since 1985, disappeared in the dust. Residents also say questionable logging practices have silted their pond, which contains some of the region's last remaining spawning habitat for brook trout and landlocked salmon. Tellingly, 100 of the 112 landowners have banded together, determined not to let Plum Creek tout Roach Pond as a success story.

"What happened here is a warning bell," says Elizabeth Kay, a Maine conservtionist. "If we don't protect this land and make it a national park, the stage will be set for the other Plum Creeks of the world to come in and build more housing developments on our shorelines."

Heidi Ridgley is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

NPCA: Focus on New York and New England

Last fall, NPCA opened a regional office in New York City to address issues concerning more than 27,000 acres of national parkland that host millions of visitors each year, from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to Gateway National Recreation Area. Although the city is known more for cultural icons like Wall Street and Times Square, it reflects the impact of historical inhabitants from American Indians to Dutch, English, African Americans, and waves of immigrants over the last two centuries. The city also lies along the Atlantic Flyway--a major migratory route for hundreds of species of birds--making the parks around New York Harbor biologically rich as well.

NPCA has already spent one year building support for the ten national park units in New York City. Eventually, NPCA's work will grow to encompass other Northeastern parks, including Cape Cod National Seashore, Fire Island National Seashore, and Acadia National Park.
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Author:Ridgley, Heidi
Publication:National Parks
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1U1ME
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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