December 13, 2019

Maine woods options

The Northern Forests Land Council has distributed its “Findings and Options,” requesting public comment on the material that will form the basis for its final recommendations for public policy changes affecting Maine’s North Woods (see the BDN’s thoughtful editorial of Sept. 14). At the bottom of each page is printed: “In this document, the Council identifies the range of actions available to conserve and enhance the public and private values of the Northern Forest of Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.”

By coincidence, studies recently completed for the Land Use Regulation Commission have been made public in the Maine Sunday Telegram (Oct. 31) and elsewhere. The most serious problem facing attempts to “… conserve and enhance the public and private values…” is federal tax policy, but central to both publications is the question of public use of these “wildlands” for recreation and for construction of seasonal and permanent dwellings.

This question has been a vexing one for many years; the problems arise chiefly from certain facts: 95 percent of this “wildland” is privately owned, and virtually all of the thousands of miles of roads which traverse the “wildlands” are built and maintained by the owners for use in their various timber operations. But included within these private lands are the Great Ponds, streams and rivers which belong to the state and to which public access is permitted over private property on private roads. For more than 20 years a private corporation, The North Maine Woods, formed by almost 20 different landowners and corporations, has maintained a network of camping sites in the nearly three million acres from the Canadian border southward to Chesuncook and eastward to Ashland, an operation without parallel anywhere else in the United States.

Tucked away in the “options” for the “local forest-based economy” is option No. 18: “Support existing initiatives that provide public access to private lands (such as the North Maine Woods, a cooperative program among several large industrial landowners to encourage and regulate access to more than two million acres of northern Maine woodlands).” Here, presented seemingly as an afterthought, is in fact the kernel of perhaps the best idea for a workable program which would bring together the parallel interests of the public (the state of Maine) and the landowners. I propose that North Maine Woods, which has a demonstrated track record of successful operation for more than two decades, be expanded to include more than six million acres of the north woods. I would suggest a block of more than five million acres, extending from Route 201 between Jackman and The Forks, eastward past Baxter State Park to the East Branch of the Penobscot, thence northward to include the existing North Maine Woods lands. A second block of a little less than one million acres — the Western Mountains — would extend from Route 201 southwestward from the Canadian border to Route 16 past Stratton, Sugarloaf and Rangeley and toward the New Hampshire line to include Grafton Notch and Old Speck.

The state of Maine should participate actively in this operation, for two reasons: public lands and state parks would be included within the cooperative area, and the state would use its accepted police powers to operate the gates which would control access to the areas. Regulation of access is vital, both to prevent overuse of some sites, and for reasons of safety on certain roads which may have heavy truck use while lumbering operations are under way.

Some public highways would pass through the areas described, such as Routes 6 and 15 from Rockwood to Jackman, Route 27 from Eustis to Coburn Gore, Route 16 from Rangeley to the New Hampshire line, and Route 26 through Grafton Notch. That situation exists today in various state and national parks throughout the country, and accomodations can be made. Some negotiations and adjustments would be necessary between the state and the various landowners, but we have already had practice with this and the problems would be far less than those we would face with a federal administration from the Boston office of some Washington bureaucracy.

Donaldson Koons of Oakland was the first commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation (1973-75), and was formerly chairman of LURC.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

comments for this post are closed

You may also like