One of the nation’s biggest landowners filed a plan Tuesday with Maine’s wilderness zoning agency to subdivide its holdings in the Moosehead Lake region and develop nearly 1,000 camp lots and two resorts in the North Woods that Henry David Thoreau roamed 150 years ago.
The project, which Plum Creek Lumber Co. announced in December, is the largest subdivision ever proposed in the 10.5 million acres of unorganized territories that the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission oversees.
The Seattle-based company said the plan has drawn broad support in the Greenville-Rockwood area because of the way it balances conservation and economic development in a part of Maine where job opportunities have lagged.
“Over the past several months, we have met with more than 25 interest groups and numerous members of the community to discuss our plan,” said Jim Lehner, Plum Creek’s general manager for the Northeast. “During this process, we have listened to the feedback we received and, in many cases, we have adjusted our plans based on that feedback.”
LURC’s review process is expected to take at least a year, with environmental organizations vowing to give the plan careful scrutiny.
“This is not our vision of what the North Woods should be for the people of Maine. This is the biggest undeveloped area east of the Mississippi and its specialness comes from its being undeveloped,” said Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Plum Creek said the project involves a total of 426,000 acres, of which about 10,000 are slated for development. About 4,500 acres would be set aside for camp lots, along with 3,500 acres for two “nature-based” resorts. Land is also earmarked for economic development and low-income housing in Greenville, the tourist town that serves as the main springboard to the North Woods.
Most of the remaining 416,000 acres would remain working forest under a 30-year management plan that would allow Plum Creek to continue logging operations but preclude further development.
As conservation incentives, the deal includes permanent hiking and snowmobile trail rights for the state and shorefront conservation status for 180 miles of shore land, including 55 undeveloped, “pristine” ponds.
The proposed development would be on part of the more than 900,000 acres that Plum Creek purchased seven years ago from Sappi Inc., one of a series of huge deals in which papermakers unloaded their timberlands to raise capital.
LURC said the 500-page application would be available for public inspection by Monday at town offices in Greenville and Jackman and by appointment at the agency’s offices in Augusta.
After reviewing the application to make sure it is complete, LURC plans to submit it to various state and federal agencies for review and comment. By late spring or early summer it hopes to hold a series of public workshops in the Moosehead Lake region to provide information about the project and answer any questions, said Aga Pinette, a land use planner for LURC.
After the initial review phase, the commission will schedule public hearings and accept written comments.
In terms of geographic size, Pinette said, the project is the biggest ever to come before LURC, surpassing Great Northern Paper’s ill-fated bid during the 1980s to build the Big A dam along the West Branch of the Penobscot River.
Lehner said the project represents a challenge for Plum Creek because of Maine’s unique regulatory environment.
“No other state has a LURC,” he said. “The planning process is far different than anything we’ve ever done.”
Lehner expressed confidence that the state would embrace the plan once people recognize the level of conservation and the potential boost to the economy of the Moosehead Lake region.
Although the Natural Resources Council has yet to take a stance on the project, size and location remain its key concerns, said Johnson, who suggested that development be sited closer to population centers.
“I’m afraid that this is really a turning point for the North Woods. We have another half-dozen landowners that are watching this very carefully. If Plum Creek is allowed to do this on 400,000 acres, we could get 20 more of these things all across the North Woods.”