ROCKPORT – Maine’s North Woods are in a time of transition with huge swaths of land changing hands almost weekly, paper mills struggling to survive in a new global market, and multimillion-dollar homes being constructed inside a vast wilderness. But precisely what Maine should do to shape the future of this northwesterly third of our state inspired debate among six prominent conservationists at Thursday’s annual winter meeting of the Maine State Bar Association.
Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt’s Bees and, more recently, the best known and most vilified proponent of a Maine Woods National Park, said Thursday she still believes federal recognition would give the region the best chance of protecting its ecological and economic interests.
“A national park brings national attention,” Quimby said, citing a park’s ability to “sell” environmental values to the majority of Americans who don’t consider the natural world a priority. “It’s about selling the environment to a population that’s either in denial or asleep at the wheel,” she said.
But winning over the residents of northern Maine who would stand to reap the potential benefits she attributes to a national park has proved more difficult than anticipated, said Quimby in her keynote address.
The sale of a majority interest in her company in 2003 gave Quimby the time and the capital to realize much of her vision: buying forestland for a wilderness park and then donating the property to the National Park Service. But her recent acquisition – of a township and some smaller pieces of land near the Baxter State Park boundary – put Quimby squarely at odds with the local “subculture” of logging, hunting, snowmobiling and live-and-let-live.
“Most of [the tension] is a result, basically, of unintended consequences, actions that I didn’t understand the ramifications of,” she said. “We created a number of problems on the ground.”
In response, Quimby has created a Maine office (albeit in Portland) and has hired “expert staff” for her newly named “Keep ME Beautiful,” a nonprofit organization formed to manage her 50,000 acres of property as wildlife sanctuaries where only nonmotorized recreation would be permitted. Quimby also has shifted much of her attention to the Winter Harbor-Gouldsboro area where she keeps a summer home, is investigating conservation possibilities, and has joined the board of the Schoodic Education and Research Center at Acadia National Park.
Others disputed Quimby’s assertion that a national park is the best solution for the North Woods. John Cashwell III, president of Seven Islands Land Co., went so far as to predict that a North Woods national park would “destroy the social fabric” of rural, natural resource-dependent communities.
State Conservation Commissioner Pat McGowan spoke of continuing efforts to ensure access for all – loggers, hunters, and hikers in search of wilderness – without the national park that Gov. John Baldacci has consistently opposed.
“It is a very big north woods,” he said. “You already have 40 of the nicest [state] parks in the country. See what we have, and then tell me if we need a national park.”
Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Bangor-based Forest Society of Maine, promoted his group’s focus – conservation easements that bar most development but ensure the right of forestry to continue – as a compromise with the power to protect both nature and a traditional resource-based economy.
“This is the model that works from a conservation and a business perspective,” he said.
Indeed, working forest conservation easements were cited by nearly all of the panelists as an important step forward in North Woods conservation. But the closed-door deals between the forest industry and wealthy investors that lead to huge easements raised concerns for Donna Loring, a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation who serves as interim tribal representative to the Legislature.
“We’ve watched our land and our resources disappear, and we’ve watched land sales happen without including us,” said Loring. “That’s exactly what happened to the tribes, and it’s exactly what’s happening to the people in rural Maine. That change will be permanent, and I’m afraid that it will be without the input of all the average Maine citizens.”
Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods, a group advocating for a North Woods national park with offices in Hallowell, spoke of a “revolution” in the Maine forests with land changing hands faster than policy-makers can track in the absence of a long-term plan for the region.
“We’re doing a good job of protecting working forest. What we’re not doing yet is protecting enough land from logging,” St. Pierre said, urging the consideration of a national park as part of the larger answer to balancing Maine’s dual heritage of wild lands and working forests.
For decades, large, paternalistic forestry companies owned giant portions of the landscape, served to varying degrees as environmental stewards, and allowed the Mainers who worked in their mills to enjoy the forests. But the developers, investment firms and international corporations that have bought these forests acre by acre in recent years won’t necessarily have that same interest, according to St. Pierre.
Cashwell believed the concerns were overblown, saying, “Nothing’s gone; it just changed.”
But that change has the power to alter Maine’s landscape and its economy over the next 30 years if, as predicted, remote regions such as the Penobscot River watershed see unprecedented demand for development, the panelists agreed.
“I can’t help but think of the California gold rush,” Loring said. “[The land] is going. It’s going really fast.”