by Orna Izakson The Bangor Daily News Wednesday, December 16, 1998
AUGUSTA - In a historic announcement Tuesday, the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy said it will buy 185,000 acres of industrial forest land along the Upper St. John River in northwestern Maine from International Paper Corp. for $35.1 million. Equaling nearly 1 percent of Maine's land base, the environmental organization's new property represents the largest tract ever set aside for conservation in the northeastern United States. Nestled along the Quebec border, it includes 40 miles of river frontage beginning at Baker Lake, the traditional put-in point for trips along Maine's last undammed river. It represents one-third of the stretch between the St. John's headwaters and its confluence with the Allagash River.
The scale of the conservation purchase is unprecedented in the Northeast. Baxter State Park is only slightly larger, including 204,733 acres, and the famed Allagash Wilderness Waterway includes only 22,840 acres.
Kent Wommack, executive director of the conservancy's Maine chapter, promised the land will remain open for hunting, fishing and traditional recreation. The land will be managed first for the natural and recreational resources found there, based on a plan that has not yet been developed. Commercial timber harvesting will continue to at least some degree under the management of Wagner Woodlands of New Hampshire, Wommack said, and could include clear-cutting and herbicide spraying as tools ''of last resort.''
All management decisions for the property, he promised, ''will be made by us, right here in Maine.''
To make the purchase, which Wommack expects will be final next month, The Nature Conservancy dipped into its own revolving loan fund. The money must be paid back with interest, he said, and so the organization will be launching the largest fund-raising effort in its history. The deal is the costliest the organization ever has pursued anywhere in the world, and is second in acreage only to a 500-square-mile parcel the group bought in New Mexico.
Wommack said his group does expect to take some of the acreage out of timber production, but how much it can protect from logging as well as development depends on how much money it can raise.
''Any lands that are going to be preserved, we need to raise funding to pay for that acreage,'' he said. ''If we don't raise a penny for this, we won't be able to afford to take any land out of timber production.''
The Nature Conservancy also could sell some of the land with restrictions to prevent development or unsustainable logging if it needs more money to repay the loan. Ultimately, Wommack said, the group hopes to protect the most sensitive areas, while allowing sustainable timber management in other areas where that is compatible with the group's conservation goals.
The move received nearly unanimous acclaim from around the state. Environmentalists praised it as ''spectacular'' and a positive step away from industrial forestry they say harms biological diversity.
Gov. Angus King called the deal a ''win-win for the state of Maine.''
''It's a tremendous gesture that will benefit generations of Maine people,'' he said. ''Baxter [State Park] took 60 years to assemble. This one's being done in a month.''
The Nature Conservancy, King said, was proceeding in exactly the right way to protect ''one of the great wild rivers in the United States'' by continuing to allow public access, traditional recreation and logging on the parcel. ''I think this transaction should allay the fears of those who fear that somehow this kind of transaction will somehow diminish the resource base in Maine or put it off limits.''
George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, said the move also is good for outdoor sporting interests because it ensures access to the remote section of the Maine woods forever.
''I know there's going to be concern because it's The Nature Conservancy, but in Maine, The Nature Conservancy has been tremendously supportive of sportsmen's interests,'' Smith said. ''It wasn't lost on me that the first guarantee [Wommack] put out there was that this land would be open for hunting and fishing and other traditional activities forever.''
The best part of the news, he said, is that the land will never be owned by the federal government.
''That's the one thing we fear in the North Woods - a national park,'' he said. ''I'm confident that the federal government will never own these lands.''
Jym St. Pierre of RESTORE: The North Woods, the group that for years has advocated creating a national park around Baxter State Park, said Tuesday's announcement highlights the importance of protecting wildlands in the Northeast.
''I think it really shows that the eyes of the nation are turning to the Northeast and turning to Maine in particular and realizing that this is the last chance for protecting big wilderness in the Lower 48 [contiguous states],'' he said. Jim Robbins, vice president of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont and president of the Maine Forest Products Council, was more reserved in his support for the purchase.
''I have no problem with it,'' he said. ''We in the industry have been saying if some environmental groups want to control the land they should buy it, and The Nature Conservancy does that ... A lot of people just talk about it and look for ways to [take] the land away from us. These people, they buy it ... that's the American way.''
Robbins said the Maine forest-products industry has had a good working relationship with The Nature Conservancy, an organization he said believes in multiple uses, including continued timber management.
But property-rights activist Mary Adams of Garland said the move was a bad one.
''This makes what I consider the enemy a major pretend player in the woods business,'' she said. ''It will be wine-and-cheese logging and a lot of restriction ... I'm sorry that IP saw fit to sell to them.''
Adams said she was concerned the organization might turn the property over to the state or federal government, noting the lands fall into an area once considered for wildlands protection by the Northern Forest Alliance. The Nature Conservancy owns lands outright all over the country, but also provides interim financing in some cases until public entities can come up with the money to buy particular parcels. International Paper put 218,176 acres on the market this spring, and The Nature Conservancy originally got involved with Wagner Woodlands and another private purchaser. By the time International Paper accepted the purchase bid in November, the other private buyer had backed out, Wommack said, giving the conservation group the opportunity to buy the whole thing.
When the deal closes later this month, The Nature Conservancy will own 138,664 acres outright, as well as the majority share of 79,512 acres of undivided land also owned by companies including Huber Resources, Prentiss and Carlisle and others.
The land may remain undivided, or, if the management styles of the different landowners do not mesh, the land can be separated into individual ownerships. Wommack also said The Nature Conservancy may trade some of its ''plain vanilla forest lands'' for more sensitive lands elsewhere along the Upper St. John.
© Copyright 1998, Bangor Daily News Inc. Reprinted with permission.