the Maine woods in the Boston Globe, part one

Joseph Zorzin redoak at forestmeister.com
Mon Sep 25 02:30:04 EST 2000


POSTED IN SAF NEWS LIST, FROM BOSTON GLOBE
*****************

A RACE TO SAVE MAINE
WOODS
DEVELOPMENT THREAT
SPURRING PUSH TO BUY
LAND

Author: By Beth Daley, Globe Staff Date: 09/18/2000
Page: A1 Section: Metro/Region

In tomorrow's Health and Science section: The future of
logging in Maine

TOWNSHIP 4, RANGE 16, MAINE - Twenty-one miles
from a paved road, deep in New England's last wilderness,
a yellow steel gate guards 10 scattered cottages up a
daisy-lined road.

A gated community is a strange sight in these remote
woods, where the moose outnumber the people. Even
though Maine's north woods are privately owned,
everyone from fishermen to hikers to snowmobilers has
long treated it like a vast public park.

But the shiny, high security lock dangling from the gate -
blocking access to 10,000 acres - just may represent
Maine's future: After generations of stability, one of the
biggest and most storied forests east of the Mississippi
River is being sold.

Almost one-third of the state's 15 million-acre north
woods, stretching from the Allagash River to Moosehead
Lake, have gone on the auction block in the last two
years. Most of the land was simply transferred among
timber companies, but at least one new owner is part real
estate developer, advertising the land as the perfect
location for remote estates. The first sold this year.

So far, the land of Paul Bunyan hasn't changed a lot.
Officials see about the same number of new housing
applications - around 300-400 a year - in the woods as
they have since 1995. And state regulators have tightened
rules to prevent runaway development in the two-thirds of
Maine where almost no one lives.

But every time a new bloc of land goes up for sale, many
fear that it could open the floodgate to urbanites a few
hours to the south looking for their piece of the
wilderness.

"I get calls all the time from people wanting leases to put
up summer camps," said Keith Pelletier, a logging
company owner who co-bought 245,000 acres of forest
last year. "I'm not going to, but if I opened the land . . . I
figure it would fill up."

That fear has sparked one of the nation's most ambitious -
and controversial - races to save private land from
development. From the White House to Maine's state
house, there hasn't been such a concerted conservation
effort in Maine since Governor Percival Baxter bought
200,000 acres around Mount Katahdin in 1919 and gave it
to the state.

Frantic that the land may be lost forever, some private
groups and the state are trying to acquire land outright.
Voters last year approved $50 million to buy land, but
that's a meager sum for the expensive task of protecting a
15 million acre forest. Even the Nature Conservancy, the
nation's best-funded conservation group, financed a
185,000 acre land purchase around the St. John River by
allowing limited logging on its new holdings, a highly
unusual step for environmentalists.

Instead, conservationists are getting creative, buying only
the development rights on land to make sure no houses
ever go up on them. Under these "easements," landowners
can still log the land, which is why some critics view them
as little more than a subsidy for companies to cut down
trees. But supporters see easements as a cost-effective
way to preserve Maine's "working forest" where loggers
and recreationists coexist.

In fact, the world's biggest easement - on a piece of land
bigger than Rhode Island - is nearly complete in Maine.
The New England Forestry Foundation, a
Massachusetts-based group, has until Dec. 31 to buy the
development rights from the Pingrees, one of Maine's
most established timber families. The $30 million
easement project, the biggest ever undertaken by the
foundation, demonstrates just how much the rest of New
England and the country cares about the Maine
wilderness.

Meanwhile, a similar, slightly smaller project was
announced this June to save the West Branch region of
the Penobscot River, one of the last undeveloped major
streams in the East.

But, even if those projects succeed - raising the percentage
of the Maine woods that can never be developed from 4.5
percent to 15 percent - millions of acres will remain
vulnerable.

Exactly how the Maine story ends is being watched
closely. More than 70 percent of the nation's undeveloped
land is owned by private people or groups, according to
the Forestry Foundation. Much of the land is used for
timber or farming. If Maine can find a way to mesh
private economic goals with the public good on giant
pieces of land, maybe others can, too.

"What is playing out in Maine speaks clearly to what the
issues are for the country: How do we promote forestry
and also protect it for wilderness and recreation," said
Andrea Colnes, director of the Northern Forest Alliance, a
coalition of conservation, recreation and forestry groups.
"The same owners here own in the Southeast, the Great
Lakes region. It's happening everywhere."

The stuff of legend

The Maine woods, even from an airplane, are unending.
Sweeping across the landscape in all directions, the
woodlands are so sparsely populated, they are officially
called the Unorganized Territories and regulated from the
state capital in Augusta. There are few paved roads.
Fewer homes. The bear-filled woods are so remote, guides
need to be hired to help tourists hunt and fish.

"Every kid from Connecticut north did their first canoeing
on Moosehead Lake. What makes Boston so bearable is
that we know there are places not as crowded as the Cape
or the White Mountains - even if we don't always go
there," said Julie Wormser, Northeast Regional Director
for the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group.

Even for those who never enter the north woods, it is the
stuff of legend. Here, Henry David Thoreau chronicled
Maine's primitive beauty while paddling Moosehead Lake
and trekking to Katahdin. A 31-foot statue of the fictional
giant Paul Bunyan greets visitors to Bangor, and real
lumberjacks led giant log drives down Maine rivers until
the 1970s.

Big as it is, the north woods is just part of a vulnerable,
mostly privately owned forest that stretches from eastern
Maine to New York's Adirondack Mountains.
Environmentalists, regulators and residents have struggled
for years to protect the 26 million acre region known as
the Northern Forest, the largest unbroken forest east of
the Mississippi.

But Maine, with its history of timber barons who literally
bought and sold large portions of the state, is where the
issue is most urgent. Almost 6 million acres of Maine has
changed hands since 1988, 80 percent of that in just the
last two years. Faced with global competition and a
shareholders' eye on the bottom line, huge timber
companies have been increasingly divesting land holdings.

`It's a big scare.'

Despite the rapid pace of land sales, however,
development has crept rather than leapt so far. There were
373 housing permit applications in the Unorganized
Territories last year, a slight increase over previous years,
but still less than the 536 applied for in 1990. That year, a
federal report on the lands painted an ugly picture of what
the woods would look like in as little as two decades
because of Americans' insatiable appetite for a piece of
solitude. But in reality, the landscape has changed very
little in that decade.

The timber sales, many forestry specialists say, represent
an economic dilemma forced by Wall Street: Is it more
cost-effective to own your own woods or not? Many
companies are divesting their woodlands, but the woods
are still being used for timber.

In fact, to many residents, the threat of development
seems unrealistic. The Maine woods are hard to get to and
harsh in winter and black fly season, they note, while strict
zoning prevents land from being broken into tiny lots.

"It's a big scare, that's all. It's not a threat," said Barton
Hughes, whose father sold parcels where the gated
community is off of logging's famous Golden Road in
Township Four in the mid-80s. The Hughes sold the land
after buying it from the Pingrees.

"When we developed the land, there were loopholes in the
law that allowed you to sell lots, but today the rules don't
allow that kind of development," Hughes said. "Where
else do you see this happening in the woods? Nowhere."

But environmentalists say people shouldn't be lulled by
slow development. Even if huge subdivisions aren't going
up, the forest's face changes with any development.

"What happens is that the first few homes change the
character of an area from an undeveloped wild area to an
area that starts having development," said Cathy Johnson,
north woods project director for the Natural Resources
Council of Maine. "These woods have a wild feel that can
be wrecked."

Moreover, environmentalists point to powerful indicators
of interest in north woods real estate. The price of
waterfront property, especially around Moosehead Lake,
is at an all time high. And they say it would be fairly easy
for a wealthy person to buy a large chunk of timberland to
be subdivided for second homes.

Driving those fears is Plum Creek Timberlands, which
bought almost a million acres of timberland from South
Africa Pulp and Paper in 1998. While a forest
management company, the company has placed some
pieces of their timber land on the open market in Maine,
as they have in Montana.

One big slice of the north woods, 7,500 acres around
Spencer Lake, was bought by telecommunications mogul
John Malone earlier this year. Plum Creek officials said
Malone bought it with conservation in mind, but nearby
residents say there is no guarantee he, or the next owner,
won't dice it up in the future. Or, just as bad, put up no
trespassing signs.

"That sale was a huge scare for us," said Bob Croce, who
owns Spencer Pond Camps, about 40 miles away from
where Malone bought. Like others who lease land for
commercial or private camps from timber companies, he
worries new owners will cancel leases or prohibit access to
the woods that are used for hunting. "We're all nervous."
he said.

Virtually everyone - from trappers to timberland owners -
agrees the public should have some ability to use the land,
but that's where the conversation ends. On one extreme,
some groups, such as Restore The north woods, wants to
buy 3.2 million acres of prime forestland and make it into
a national park where logging is prohibited.

In the middle, President Clinton has marked the north
woods as a conservation priority, but federal funding has
been scarce. And Maine Governor Angus King also has
made conservation a cornerstone of his tenure, pledging to
dramatically increase the state's public lands holdings. But
the state has a long way to go: Only 5 percent of Maine is
publicly owned. In New Hampshire, in contrast, it's 18
percent.

That's where the buying of development rights come in.
Easements are 80 percent less expensive than an outright
purchase, allowing the state to dream of protecting
656,000 acres near the West Branch of the Penobscot
River, for $50 million or less. In essence, the money
protects five times as many acres as a purchase.

But not everyone likes the idea of the West Branch
easement. Many say the federal government's involvement
- Congress has been asked for $30 million - could mean
restrictions, perhaps cutting out hunting, snowmobiling, or
other public access. Some fear it is the first step toward a
national park with lots of restrictions like the one Restore
supports.

Critics also question why so much money should be
handed over to simply allow companies to continue doing
business as usual. While development may be a threat
near some waterfront and scenic areas, it is not across the
whole north woods.

"If someone is going to hand me a check for doing nothing
different, I'd take it, too," said Mary Adams, a property
rights activist from Garland. "The woods are still for
timber. Protect it from what?"

But Keith Ross of the New England Forestry Foundation
argues that the mammoth easements he and others are
pursuing now will look like farsighted management to
future generations. His group, for instance, has the chance
to block development on 754,673 acres forever for just
$37 an acre.

"If you try to do this in 50 years, it's going to be $3,700 an
acre," said Ross. "We're protecting a landscape at a level
that has never been tried before . . . This can be an
incredible tool to protect land on [a scale] that was
impossible before."

SIDEBAR 1:
Major conservation deals in Maine's North Woods

June 2000: The Forest Society of Maine and the state
announce a plan to buy the development rights and
guarantee public access on 656,000 acres around the West
Branch of the Penobscot River for an estimated $40-$50
million. Still pending.

April 2000: The state and federal government buy the
development rights and guarantee public access on 20,268
acres on Nicatous and West lakes for $3.75 million.

March 1999: The state and The Trust for Public Land buy
65 miles of shoreline on Moosehead and Flagstaff lakes
and the Kennebec River in a $5.26 million land swap and
purchase. Public access is guaranteed.

March 1999: The New England Forestry Foundation
launches a fund-raising campaign to raise $30 million to
buy the development rights on 754,673 acres owned by
the Pingree family. Public access is not written in the deal,
but Pingrees pledge to continue the tradition of allowing
recreation on their land. Still pending.

December 1998: The Nature Conservancy buys 185,000
acres in the far northwestern corner of the state for $35.1
million that includes a 40-mile stretch of the Upper St.
John River. The deal prevents development but allows
some logging and public access.

SOURCE: The Natural Resources Council of Maine, the
Nature Conservancy, New England Forestry Foundation,
and the Forest Society of Maine.

SIDEBAR 2:

REMOTE REGION GROWING IN APPEAL

Not so long ago, the idea that the North Woods could be
sold off and subdivided seemed an impossibility. A
handful of timber barons owned most of Maine's land
mass, and they showed little inclination to sell. To the
paper company owners and timber families, the land was
their strength.

Of course, the timber company owners presented their
own problems - such as miles-long clearcuts gouged into
the forest - but they kept permanent residents out.

But in 1982, British financier Sir James Goldsmith
orchestrated a hostile takeover of Diamond International,
which included a million acres of forestland in New
Hampshire and Maine. Six years later, he put 800,000
acres of Maine up for sale. And developers came. In the
end, James River Paper Co. acquired most of the land for
timber, but the sale opened eyes to the vulnerability of the
woods.

The expanding New England population in the 1980s
began to pave a more solid road from Boston to northern
Maine. National corporations like Patten held seminars in
Boston hotels selling wealthy business people on the
appeal of the spruce forest. Some bought, but, for many,
available remote land was still closer in New Hampshire,
Vermont, and lower Maine. The company eventually went
out of business, but the seed was planted.

Now, the economy is booming, population seams are
busting, and the White Mountains and lower Maine is
packed with cottages and summer camps. Northern
Maine, within a day's drive for 70 million people, looks
appetizing.

"I may not see it in my lifetime, but I know development
is creeping in," said Merle Haskell of Garland, who puts
up a trailer every April on a campground in the North
Woods and doesn't leave until October. "All the land sales
get you worried. My grandchildren will be seeing it if I or
my children don't."








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