Northern Forest plan stresses cell, Web access
Study: Cell phone, Internet service key to Northern Forest economy
By David Tirrell-Wysocki
Congress should help bring cell phone and high-speed Internet service to rural communities across northern New England and New York as part of a wide-ranging plan to improve the area’s weak economy, a study recommended Wednesday.
“In practical terms, we want cell phones and Internet service to work as well in the Northern Forest as they do in Boston or New York City,” members of the Northern Forest Sustainable Economy Initiative said in a report to governors, policy-makers and business and community leaders in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.
Without the improvements, economic development options are “difficult, if not impossible to consider,” the group said in its report.
The 60-member committee was appointed by the governors of the four states in conjunction with the Concord, N.H.-based Northern Forest Center and the North Country Council of New Hampshire. More than 15 people from Maine, including business leaders, economic development coordinators and state officials, participated in the initiative.
The authors called the report the first four-state strategy for sustainable economic development in the 30 million-acre Northern Forest, which is home to more than 2 million people.
Long-term goals include working over state lines to maintain the forests that brought communities and jobs to the region in the first place; coordinating marketing of businesses, including tourism; encouraging residents and government to buy locally made products and services; improving communications and transportation; and harnessing renewable energy.
Bob Clark, executive director of the Northern Maine Development Commission, said he believes the report will dovetail with the mission of a four-state commission recently authorized by Congress. NMDC serves communities throughout Aroostook County and in parts of Washington, Piscataquis and Penobscot counties.
The Northern Border Regional Commission will spend $30 million on economic development and job creation projects in the most economically distressed areas of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.
Clark, who was one of Maine’s representatives on the Northern Forest initiative, said all of the report’s recommendations would benefit far northern Maine. But he said the focus on transportation and renewable energy is particularly important.
Committee member Bob Thompson of Maine’s Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments said Northern Forest communities must work together on common problems in order to regain economic success in a global marketplace.
The group says the area is in transition from an economy dominated by large corporations, including lumber and paper companies, to an economy in which development is led by smaller businesses trying to compete around the world. At the same time, the report stresses the economic and ecological importance of maintaining the region’s vast forests.
David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said the report’s recommendations mirror many initiatives already under way in Maine, especially those aimed at maintaining forestland. Maine recently hosted a conference of New England governors and Canadian premiers at which officials discussed many of the same issues highlighted in the report, Farmer said.
“What’s important about it is … we are approaching these goals from a regional perspective,” Farmer said.
Asking Congress to help improve communications is a top recommendation because major portions of the region do not have cell phone coverage or affordable, reliable high-speed Internet access.
Other recommendations include:
ä Fostering new businesses that maintain and enhance the area’s assets, especially the forest.
ä Restoring east-west freight train lines within two years and exploring passenger service to southern New England and New York.
ä Protecting the forest environment and ecology, including maintaining and seeking new federal funding for various programs.
ä Setting up a coordinated organization to help advocate and implement the recommendations in all four states.
“We want the businesses and employees of the region to share the pride — and the financial rewards — of meeting the growing worldwide demand for high-quality ‘green’ products. We want the region to benefit from meeting more of its energy needs with sustainable local resources,” the committee wrote.
The Northern Forest stretches 400 miles from New York’s Tug Hill Plateau and Adirondack Mountains to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and Green Mountains, New Hampshire’s North Country and White Mountains and all of Maine north of Augusta, including the Western Mountains.
BDN writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.