by Jym St. Pierre
It is 2048. I'm standing at Kakadjo village in the heart of the Maine Woods. Half a century ago there was a great hullabaloo about which was the first year of the new millennium. Looking back it is clear that it was neither 2000, nor 2001. The year 1998 really marked the turning point. For that was the year Frank Sinatra died and Sappi put nearly a million acres of Maine forestlands up for grabs.
The death of Sinatra, of course, was inevitable. We all die. What he represented--a world view that was unambiguously he-man, my-way-or-the-highway cocksure--seems quaint and distant now.
The Maine Woods nearly met a similar fate. The behemoth corporate ownerships that dominated Maine during the previous century drove the industrialization of the forest nearly to its sadly logical extreme. That is, a land where all vestiges of wildness had been wrung out.
Once there had been rivers in Maine that ran through unbroken forests for a hundred miles. Most were muzzled by dams and straddled by bridges. As if regulating seasonal flows and hastening the ability to get logged trees out of the woods justified an overabundance of dams and bridges.
Once there had been remote lakes by the thousands, many harboring rare trout and salmon. Most were fished out and developed when roads and boat launches were built to practically every pond under the guise of improving public access. As if access meant always being able to drive everywhere.
Once there had been millions of acres of wild forest, populated by hundreds of different plants and animals. Most were fractured by clearcuts, roads, utility lines, plantations and subdivisions. As if manifest destiny compelled that the woods be tamed into tree zoos, that everywhere the back forty be transformed into back yards.
In short, what made the Maine Woods magical, its wilderness character, was lost.
Happily that is not the story of the entire Maine Woods. At the proverbial last minute, some of it was rescued. In the 1990s, a company called South African Pulp & Paper Industries acquired 911,000 acres of land in the Maine Woods. Within four years Sappi finished the job started by its industrial predecessors of liquidating the most merchantable forest stands. Then the company put its near-million acres up for sale.
The Sappi lands were hardly the first, nor were they the last huge corporate ownerships in Maine sold around the turn of the century. Indeed, by the 1990s Maine had earned the dubious distinction of having the greatest concentration of industrial forest ownership of any state in the U.S. Millions of those acres had been trading hands. But it was the sale of the Sappi lands that changed everything.
A fellow named Angus King was governor. He had built a reputation as an ardent advocate for business and an opponent of federal ownership. However, realizing that the global economy was forcing the large landowners in Maine to sell off their forest holdings, he rose to the occasion.
Governor King gathered the major landowners for a summit. He told them the huge land sales and the uncertainty they engendered were an embarrassment, especially when he was running for reelection. He spoke
To his credit, Governor King acknowledged that the region had national significance and that the State could not by itself protect a large enough area.
of how important it was to his legacy to protect at least some of these lands for the public. The State had little money to buy land, even at wholesale prices, he said. But with the help of private conservation organizations and public spirited businesses and individuals, Maine could come up with enough to acquire the undeveloped shorelands along Moosehead Lake and in a few other key places. And it did.
Yet, if the story had ended there it would have been a disappointment. Once again, only a thin beauty strip would have been protected instead of a whole ecosystem. Thankfully, there is more.
For a long time, really since Thoreau had first proposed the idea in the mid 1800s, farsighted people had called for permanent public protection of the Katahdin-Moosehead region in some sort of national preserve. In the twentieth century, Percival Baxter had personally purchased and donated to the public 200,000 acres. Small strips of land had been
acquired by public agencies along the Allagash Waterway and the Appalachian Trail. A scattering of state lands in the region had been gathered together through trades and acquisitions. However, the vision of large scale public protection of the headwaters of Maine's great watersheds still had not been realized. Several conservation groups revived Thoreau's idea by proposing the creation of a Maine Woods National Park & Preserve.
To his credit, Governor King acknowledged that the region had national significance and that the State could not by itself protect a large enough area. He led an effort to secure short-term private financing and long-term congressional funding to acquire several hundred thousand acres of the Sappi lands. Soon other large private forest holdings came on the market too. Many of them were acquired and added to the new national park to round it out at more than three million acres.
After years of watching the forest industry decline, the nearby communities found a new source of prosperity, for the Maine Woods National Park attracted tourists and clean businesses. After years of fretting that a park would spell the end, the forest companies in
Maine found that they could live with the park just fine, as they did in other states. After years of fearing the loss of access, sporting groups in Maine found that they now had the largest area of guaranteed public access in the East. After years of bickering, conservation groups in Maine found that they could all support the national park as a way to protect the one of the most spectacular wilderness regions in the country.
Today, nearly fifty years into the third millennium, the Maine Woods National Park is beloved by the people of Maine. As I look to the east I see the sun shining on Shaw Mountain, where the old clearcuts are healing well. To the west is Moosehead Lake, wilder than ever. I thank the men and women, who in the old days, way back in 1998, had the vision and courage to buy those Sappi lands as a contribution to the heritage of every American. And to think that we almost lost them. What a tragedy it would have been.
Jym St. Pierre is the Maine Director of RESTORE: The North Woods.
WHAT SHOULD MAINE DO?
Maine's elected officials, both state and federal, should take immediate steps to implement an expansive acquisition strategy to protect the mountains, rivers, lakes, ponds, woodlands, and bogs within the SAPPI lands.
Governor Angus King, Jr. should act to secure public and private funds to seize this golden opportunity. Likewise, the Maine Congressional Delegation should do everything they can to obtain funds through programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Forest Legacy to assist in such an effort.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
1) Call and write Governor Angus S. King, Jr. (207)-287-3531
2) Call the Maine Congressional Delegation:
Office of Senator Olympia J. Snowe
Office of Senator Susan Collins
Office of Congressman John Baldacci
Office of Congressman Tom Allen
3) Write a letter to your local newspaper.