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BAKER LAKE, Maine — The forests surrounding Baker Lake in far northern Somerset County are remote, even by Maine standards.
Few people other than loggers, truckers and some die-hard outdoor enthusiasts visit the area, reachable by driving about two hours north of Jackman on logging roads or taking a roughly 50-mile detour into Canada followed by another 25 miles on woods roads. The nearest hospital — in Saint-Georges, Quebec — is at least 40 miles away.
But later this year, school children across the country will get a glimpse at this corner of the Maine North Woods as part of an educational program aimed at helping young students better understand how nature fits into their everyday lives.
The industrial forests near Baker Lake are among a handful of places around the globe spotlighted in a new classroom curriculum — called Nature Works — under development by The Nature Conservancy and Discovery Education, a division of the Discovery Channel.
Over the coming months, video crews also will visit coral reefs off the tiny Pacific island of Palau, salmon-choked rivers in Washington State, oyster beds in the Gulf of Mexico and rain forests in South America.
Maine, meanwhile, was chosen to illustrate to students how trees are a renewable resource that becomes the paper they write on, the furniture on which they sit and the lumber that frames their homes.
“More and more, we are looking outward at how people interact with nature and how they use it,” Bill Patterson, The Nature Conservancy’s northern Maine program manager, said last week while seated in a logging camp not far from Baker Lake. “We are trying to make people understand how they benefit from forests, such as in this case, but also coral reefs in Palau” and other sites.
Last week, Patterson accompanied a camera crew that spent a chilly day filming harvesting operations within The Nature Conservancy’s St. John River Forest, a 185,000-acre tract that starts at the headwaters of the St. John River at Baker Lake.
The video crew with Discovery Education also recorded how trees are turned into “board feet” at the Moose River Lumber Co. mill in Jackman and become paper at Sappi’s mill in Madison.
Video will be combined with graphics, slide shows, blogs and other content to create interactive lesson plans for a pilot project of Nature Works aimed initially at students in the sixth to eighth grades. Thanks to The Nature Conservancy’s partnership with Discovery Education, the online lessons have the opportunity to reach more than 1 million teachers, according to Lynne Eder, director of operations for The Nature Conservancy’s science programs.
Sara Elliott, project director for Nature Works at The Nature Conservancy, said the goal of the project is to make nature more tangible for students wherever they live.
“The idea is that nature is producing and making the stuff that we use every day — the air we breathe and the water we drink — and forests are a huge part of that,” said Elliott, who works at the conservancy’s headquarters in Virginia. “The St. John Forest is a fantastic example for us of sustainable forestry.”
Although best known for their conservation work, The Nature Conservancy is actually a part of Maine’s forest products industry in addition to being a major landowner in the state.
Purchased from International Paper in the late 1990s for $35 million, the St. John River Forest property was appealing to The Nature Conservancy because of the number of rare plants found along the river. Backwater paddlers also are drawn by its remoteness and the fact that the St. John flows from Baker Lake to the Allagash area — roughly 100 miles away — without passing another year-round settlement.
“I can’t think of a more remote corner of the state,” said Jim O’Malley, a forester with Huber Resources in Old Town that manages harvesting operations within the St. John Forest. “It is very, very rural and very remote. And that is part of the beauty.”
Logging contractors hired by the conservancy harvest more than 1,000 acres a year with a goal of managing the land for key wildlife species — such as Canada lynx and marten — while still generating a profit. Altogether, about 125,000 of the property’s 185,000 acres are actively managed through forestry.
The St. John River Forest is one of the largest of about a dozen parcels around the country where the conservancy conducts harvesting. That fact has helped the organization build and maintain relationships in a forest products industry often leery of environmental groups buying large swaths of land in Maine.
“It has sort of become a working laboratory on a scale that is meaningful to other landowners,” Patterson said. “Not just on a few thousand acres but on a landscape scale.”
The first stop for the video crew last week was Moose River Lumber in Jackman, where the mill uses the latest technology to produce about 90 million board feet of lumber per year. That lumber goes into everything from timber framing for houses to caskets, said mill sales manager Steve Banahan.
The crew visited the mill to see how nothing that comes into the mill goes to waste. Moose River Lumber generates about 65 truck loads of wood chips per week for use in paper mills or biomass boilers. And Banahan said the mill now produces its own heat and steam by burning sawdust and shavings, saving 800,000 gallons of heating oil a year.
“Lumber gets used for many different things around the world,” Banahan told the video crew during an interview in the snowy lumber yard. “It’s a renewable resource. It is the most environmentally friendly building product you can use.”
After spending the night at Baker Lake Camp, the video crew headed into the woods with O’Malley and Patterson. With the cameras rolling, the crew filmed a feller buncher selectively cutting and then maneuvering trees on an 800-acre tract.
They also recorded a de-limber and grapple skidder working at another site on conservancy land. The contractor on the harvesting operations was the Pelletier Brothers, the Millinocket family of “American Loggers” fame that also operates the Baker Lake logging camp.
The crew also spent several hours recording Patterson and O’Malley discussing the conservancy’s forestry philosophy of managing the land with an eye toward creating wildlife habitat. Standing in a snow-covered field harvested several years ago, O’Malley pointed to mature birch and pine trees that — while valuable on the market — were left standing to provide wildlife habitat now as well as when they eventually fall.
Elliott, the project director with the conservancy, said the lesson plans recorded in the St. John Forest will be included in the pilot program expected to be released beginning in April. After soliciting feedback and suggestions from teachers, the program could eventually be expanded to offer lessons to students in grades K-12.
“The long-term goal is to cultivate the next generation of conservation citizens and the way we can do that is helping [students] relate to nature,” Elliott said. “It is really about trying to make [nature] personal and relevant.”