Preserving North Woods needs bold new thinking

Posted Jan. 31, 2010, at 5:20 p.m.

The ongoing situation in the North Woods today resembles a free-for-all among a number of competing interests. Predominant ownership of the forest lands has changed from very large timberland owners to a variety of other owners with different uses in mind for their forested lands besides or in addition to forest products. There remain the same old conflicts of interest among competing users of the North Woods.

Without bold new thinking and leadership, there is little chance of preserving and restoring the wild land and wilderness character of the North Woods and also maintaining an economically viable source of forest products. We can expect more fragmentation of forest land ownership and the hodgepodge of forest uses and random development to continue.

We can do better. We must do better to realize the full potential of the North Woods.

The next governor of Maine has the opportunity to lead in preserving the North Woods. Toward this end, I have some observations and suggestions:

First, any comprehensive planning strategy to preserve the North Woods should begin with recognition that these forested areas are part of a larger region, including Unorganized Territory and organized communities which should be considered as a whole.

Second, a comprehensive planning strategy will require the involvement of unvested participants from the public. Comprehensive policymaking for the North Woods exclusively by those with major vested interests or “from away” has not been successful.

I suggest the creation of a seven-member resident Temporary Commission on the Future of the North Woods. The commission members would be selected, from submitted applications, by the governor in cooperation with the majority and minority leaders of the Legislature. Any resident with knowledge of and concern for the North Woods could apply. They would represent the south, central, midcoast, Down East, western mountain and north regions of the state. The north region would be represented by two residents.

This commission would be charged with four major responsibilities: First, to determine the location, size and lands to be purchased or donated, in fee or easement, for a very significant (at least several million acres) part of the North Woods, which would include a wild land and wilderness state park and a forest reserve. Some of the lands in the forest reserve could be in private ownership, but would be overseen by the state. The state park and forest reserve would encompass both unorganized and organized communities.

Second, the commission would prepare a detailed and coordinated land use plan and detailed management plans for all state-owned lands within the North Woods State Park and Forest Reserve. Cutting-edge sustainable forest management would be required within the forest reserve, which would include the protection of special places.

Third, in cooperation with the organized communities, the commission would also prepare local land use plans to protect special places and complement and help preserve those land uses in the North Woods State Park and Forest Reserve.

Fourth, the Temporary Commission would determine the organization necessary to secure and ensure land acquisition and future management of the North Woods State Park and Forest Reserve, and community implementation, including administration and enforcement, of the local land use plans.

Funds to support the Temporary Commission and staff should be available from private sources and a variety of federal programs. The work of the Great Maine Forest Initiative could provide a beginning for the forest reserve.

The Temporary Commission would have a reasonable period of time (possibly 18 months to two years) to complete its work and submit a final report with recommendations to the governor and Legislature. These recommendations would not be amendable and would be submitted for vote of the Legislature and approval by the governor.

Nicholas Barth of Boothbay is a retired professional conservationist. He worked as a Baxter State Park ranger. He may be reached at nbarth@roadrunner.com.

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