Debate begins on Plum Creek; North Woods future is up to LURC

This story was published on Aug. 17, 2005 on Page A1 in edition 2, 3 of the Bangor Daily News

GREENVILLE – One woman’s “pristine wilderness” is her neighbor’s hope of jobs for his children.

At the first “scoping session” on a proposal by Plum Creek Timber Co. to rezone 426,000 acres to allow for nearly 1,000 house lots and a large resort development, more than 50 people asked the Land Use Regulation Commission to find a solution that protects the region’s North Woods identity without sacrificing its economic future.

Local people spoke of starry night skies, of snowmobile trails and silent lakeshores.

“We have a valuable commodity here … the Moosehead brand,” said Mildred Kennedy of the Moosehead Region Futures Committee. “Sacrificing the region’s unique character [would be] too much of a sacrifice.”

“I can’t tell you how many of my guests come to me and say, ‘Please do something to keep this area the way it is,'” said John Willard, owner of The Birches in Rockwood.

But most of those who testified Tuesday night said that they would welcome some development. People want to fill their shrinking school. They want local jobs so they don’t have to commute hours to work.

Some, like local realtor Liz Dyer, believe that Plum Creek offers the solution, creating house lots that she believes will sell to Maine families.

“Those of us who live here all have our own little piece of paradise. Where do you think that came from? That was forestland,” she said. “I’m tired of the not-in-my-backyard mentality here.”

Others argued that Plum Creek’s lots would bring urban dwellers to the woods, where they would demand services that would tax local communities’ budgets.

Joan Wisher purchased a camp on First Roach Pond in 1985, drawn by the “peace and tranquility” of the region. Since 2001, when Plum Creek began developing lots on the pond, her life has been anything but peaceful, she said.

“They won’t be building simple cabins tucked into the woods,” said Joan Shapleigh of Dover-Foxcroft, who believes that development closer to towns, such as the resort proposed for Brownville, makes more sense.

Jonathan Carter, one of the leaders of a Save Moosehead campaign that opposes the Plum Creek project in its entirety, asked LURC to formally study the potential economic benefits of protecting the region for ecotourism – ideally in the form of the national park he has advocated for more than a decade.

“Keeping wild land wild is a silent economic engine,” he said.

A local member of the park opposition group the Maine Woods Coalition countered that more than a million acres of forestland are protected already.

But Tuesday night wasn’t supposed to be about debating a park, and many speakers did address the nuts and bolts of the Plum Creek proposal.

Several speakers asked that LURC require Plum Creek to study the flora and fauna of the region, to prove that the project is as ecologically innocuous as the company claims. Wetlands and rare forest communities are not adequately addressed.

Others asked whether federal permission for development is needed in a region where federally threatened Canada lynx are believed to live.

“Forests are more than trees. These are complex ecosystems,” said biologist Diane Barritas.

Paul Johnson, a retired fisheries biologist who worked for the state for many years, urged LURC to protect wildlife habitat as well as people’s access to that habitat for hunting and fishing. On First Roach Pond, a local boat launch was lost when Plum Creek developed house lots, he said.

“It’s essential that type of opportunity never be lost again,” he said.

But whether they supported the Plum Creek plan wholeheartedly, believed it to be the ruin of the North Woods, or fell somewhere in between, all spoke of the importance of the debate. Much more than Plum Creek’s land is at stake as LURC sets precedent for the future of the region, they said.

Millions of acres are owned by timber companies scattered throughout the region, and regardless of whether the Plum Creek proposal is good or bad, it will usher in dozens of similar proposals, they said.

“It isn’t whether other developers are waiting in the wings for the decision to be made … it’s how many are waiting,” said Lauren Ritchie of Greenville.

If all the plans come to fruition, he said, “you can kiss the rest of the North Maine Woods goodbye.”

Subsequent scoping sessions are scheduled for 6 p.m. (doors open at 5:30) Thursday, Aug.18, at the Rockwood Community Building; Monday, Aug. 22, at the Sky Lodge Conference Center in Moose River; and Wednesday, Aug. 24, at the Maple Hill Inn & Conference Center in Hallowell.