Who Best to Preserve the Northern Forest?
Advocates of Park Fear Development As Ownership Shifts
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 1998; Page A06
MOOSEHEAD LAKE, MaineNot one ticky-tacky motel. Not a single summer home. All Verdell LaCasce can see from his campground here on a bay of Maine's largest lake is sky, water and woods. At night, the one light reflecting off the lake is the moon.
For such primeval isolation within a day's drive of 70 million vacation-hungry Americans, LaCasce does not credit tree-hugging environmentalists or far-sighted government. Amazingly enough, he gives praise and thanks to timber companies, the same ones that are clear-cutting huge stretches of the Maine woods around Moosehead Lake and using helicopters to douse the forests with herbicides.
"I have got a lot of faith in the big companies. That's why Moosehead is such a nice lake," he said.
Like generations who have grown up in the Northern Forest -- an expanse of timberland about the size of Virginia spread across four states of the Northeast -- LaCasce has been willing to cut a bargain of mutual self-interest with timber operators. The companies can chop down pretty much what they please as long as they keep their vast land holdings open to hunters and hikers, while locking out most development and paying all the taxes. As LaCasce points out, "It is all free. What the hell more do people want?"
The bargain, however, is breaking down. The paternalistic tradition that for centuries has safeguarded the 26 million-acre Northern Forest in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York is falling victim to the hunger of middle-class dreamers for vacation homes with soul-soothing views like that enjoyed by Verdell LaCasce.
There are also seismic changes underway in the forest products industry. Waking up to the value of their land, companies are selling out to timberland management firms that keep most of the land in production, but shave off prime bits for lucrative sales to housing developers. Around Moosehead Lake, real estate agents say, sharp investors could buy property for the $200-an-acre timberland price and sell it to developers for the $70,000-an-acre lakefront home price.
About 3 million acres of Maine's North Woods, including 49 miles of pristine lakefront on Moosehead Lake, have gone up for sale this year. That's 15 percent of the entire state. Another million acres of timberland is on the market in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.
A Mirror in 1,000 Pieces
After hiking in the Maine woods in 1853, drinking cedar beer and munching on moose lips, Henry David Thoreau described the lake and mountain country "as immeasurable forest for the sun to shine on. . . . The effect of these lakes is that of a mirror broken into a thousand pieces." There are still no major towns in the North Woods, which remain moose, loon and coyote country.
Unlike the American West, where much of the most scenic and environmentally sensitive land is owned by the federal government, the choicest chunks of the Northern Forest are nearly all available to deep-pockets bidders willing to buy in bulk.
This year's unprecedented timberland offerings have riled up virtually everyone who lives, works or plays in the Northern Forest, as well as those who feel a moral obligation to protect a wild country that struck Thoreau 145 years ago as deserving a designation as "national preserves." Maine Gov. Angus King (I) says he is scrambling to assemble "tens of millions of dollars" before the end of September so the state can buy land around Moosehead Lake and protect it from condo sprawl.
Some angry environmentalists are demanding creation of a 3.2 million-acre Maine Woods National Park. It could cost more than half a billion dollars, an amount that New England politicians say would be all but impossible to raise. Congress, thus far, has shown little willingness to come up with this kind of money for land purchases in Maine or elsewhere in New England. New York is the only state, so far, that has money on hand in an environmental bond fund to buy wild land.
Moderate environmental groups find themselves in the squeamish position of supporting continued ownership of most of the woodlands by timber companies whose environmental records they deplore. For even as these companies keep out vacation-home developers, some have brutalized the land with intensive clear-cutting and massive spraying of herbicides.
Longtime residents of the North Woods are caught in the middle. Jobs in the forest industry are declining and tourism is on the rise, but most people here do not want their communities pickled inside a national or state park. They also dread too much development, particularly on the shores of Moosehead Lake in this still-natural region 70 miles northwest of Bangor.
"We need some growth, but we don't want much," said Luke D. Muzzy, owner of the major real estate company in Greenville, a town of 1,800 people that is the largest settlement in the Moosehead area. "People come up here for peace of mind and to be happy. We don't come up here to make lots of money."
Fighting for the Forest
Rudy Engholm, who has lots of money and a couple of airplanes, is a champion of preserving the North Woods as a national park. In the 1980s, when he was a software executive in Ann Arbor, Mich., builders cut down a giant oak tree behind his house. It was the last straw. He quit his job, moved to Maine and joined Restore, the group that wants logging companies to get out of the state's North Woods and the National Park Service to come in.
Besides using his own money to preserve small parcels of the Maine woods and urging other well-heeled Americans to do likewise, Engholm specializes in taking lawmakers, regulators and journalists on propaganda tours above the North Woods.
He likes to fly low over the hideous brown gashes in the forest caused by recent clear-cuts, as well as to point out the unearthly reddish swatches of immature forest where timber companies have used herbicides to knock down alder and hardwood trees so that pulp-producing spruce and fir trees will grow faster and thicker.
He also cruises around ponds, lakes and highways showing how timber operators have left cosmetic borders of trees called "beauty strips" beyond which there are unsightly clear-cuts and mounds of trash trees that foresters considered too worthless to be fed into a chipper.
Then Engholm takes his passengers up to about 4,000 feet, where the sight lines are a bit more spiritually uplifting, and flies to the geographic center of what he hopes one day will be a national park. He and his group want it to encompass all of Moosehead Lake and nearly all the woods that have been put up for sale this year. Engholm pops Wagner into his plane's CD player, cranks the volume and instructs his passengers to gaze down at the lakes and mountains that so thrilled Thoreau.
"If this doesn't do something for your soul, I am prepared to push you out," Engholm jokes.
Preservationist passion has been fueled in recent decades in Maine by forestry practices that have scarred the woods more visibly than ever before during three centuries of logging. The long-term environmental effects of clear-cutting and using herbicides in the state are still being studied. But public outrage this decade has tightened the rules about cutting down trees and in 1996 helped put a referendum on the Maine ballot that would have banned clear-cutting. It was defeated, but only after a massive advertising campaign by timber companies.
Mechanized and chemical forestry also have reduced the number of jobs in the timber industry. Wilderness Society economist Spencer Phillips says that between 1977 and 1992, even as the harvest of trees increased by 32 percent, forest employment fell by 12 percent.
Sappi Fine Paper North America, a division of a multinational forest products corporation based in South Africa, is one of the companies whose timber harvesting methods have raised an uproar.
"I am not against forestry," says Engholm, as he flies low over tens of thousands of acres of Sappi clear-cuts and herbicide-stained brush, "but I make a distinction between a haircut and a scalping."
Sappi is the company now in the biggest hurry to sell its land. Having purchased its Maine holdings just 3 1/2 years ago, it wants to unload all 910,000 acres of its property by the end of September. The sale is for strategic reasons, according to a company spokeswoman, who describes its forest management as "excellent" and points out that a coalition of 600 recreational groups last year chose Sappi as "Maine corporate landowner of the year."
"We have decided to get back to our core business -- the manufacture of fine paper," said Melanie Otiero, adding that Sappi will keep its paper mills in Maine. "We want to sell to a company whose primary focus is timber management."
The Sappi sale is part of a wholesale transformation in the management of timberlands, according to Wall Street analysts. Papermaking companies that for decades have owned forests are waking up to the dollar value of their land and are unloading it to professionally managed timber investment firms. Those firms, in turn, often cream off the most valuable lakefront property for quick sales to housing developers, said Matt Berler, an analyst at investment firm Morgan Stanley.
The governor of Maine is rushing to prevent the cream of the land crop around Moosehead Lake from going condo.
"We have to persuade Sappi to break up their land to some extent rather than sell it in one big clean transaction. We don't know if they are going to be willing to do that yet," said King, a popular independent who analysts expect to win reelection easily this fall.
To allow the hurry-up purchase at a time when the state legislature is not in session, King said, he and his staff are putting together "some interim financing" that will raise "tens of millions of dollars" for the purchase.
But even as he improvises to buy the land, King emphasizes that he does not believe the state or the federal government has any business buying up the bulk of the North Woods for a park. The governor laughs at the notion that eco-tourism could cover the economic hole that he said would be created if a North Woods National Park were created.
"We have been able to do very well with commercial forestry and public access," King said. "Why pay for something you are getting for free? We have the best of both worlds now. The issue isn't so much who owns the land. It's the use to which the land will be put."
Environmentalists in Maine are delighted that the governor is trying to protect Moosehead Lake waterfront and other high-value timberland. But they point out that ownership of the woods is now changing several times a decade as traditional notions of land stewardship become anachronistic. "Each time the land changes hands, the temptation to strip off the best pieces for second-home development is almost irresistible," said Catherine B. Johnson, of Maine's Natural Resource Council.