With countless lakes, ponds and rivers, miles of hiking trails and scores of campsites, the North Maine Woods is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise with more than 100,000 people visiting the region every year.
The 3.5 million acres also is a privately owned working forest and while its owners are more than happy to allow access to the land over thousands of miles of dirt roads, visitors need to know the rules of those roads for safety’s sake.
And the most important rule of all to remember is logging trucks always have the right of way.
“It’s really about making sure people are aware of active logging and the trucks that are on the roads,” said Ben Carlisle, president of Prentiss & Carlisle, managers for seven of the North Maine Woods’ 27 timberland owners. “North Maine Woods started as a way to ensure that [recreation and forestry] could stay compatible with each other.”
Formed in 1971, The North Maine Woods is partnership among the landowners and works as a management organization overseeing access, camping and other recreational uses within its boundaries.
North Maine Woods staffs and operates the 19 access points, or “gates,” into the area.
“North Maine Woods is a nonprofit,” Carlisle said. “It’s intended to manage the access and to ensure everyone is safe.”
The several thousand miles of roads inside the North Maine Woods, however, are the sole logistical and financial responsibility of the individual landowners.
“We want people to be safe and to treat the roads as though they were the ones who had to grade and maintain them,” said Sarah Medina, land use director for Seven Islands Land Company, one of the North Maine Woods co-founders. “We want people to think about the work and costs that go into those roads.”
Those costs and labor can be significant, according to Al Cowperthwaite, executive director of The North Maine Woods.
“The landowners are out there several times a year grading the roads and they have installed and maintain culverts every 200 feet,” he said. “Bridges can cost $1,000 a foot to build and maintain for brook or stream crossings.”
And while the North Maine Woods does collect a $10 per person day use fee for access, that money goes to staffing the gates and related costs, Cowperthwaite said, not for road maintenance.
“People going in need to follow the rules of those roads,” he said. “They are private roads. It is quite unusual in the U.S. to have 3.5 million acres of private land open for people to drive around. If people abuse it, those roads could become closed and private.”
No one, Medina said, wants to see that happen.
“In many other states in order to recreate on private land you have to be a member of a club or pay a fee,” she said. “In Maine there is a long tradition of landowners allowing the public to recreate on private land [and] what access fees we do have do not go to the landowners — they are strictly to manage the North Maine Woods.”
The North Maine Woods road rules are published annually and given to each visitor to the area.
These rules, which include all working and recreational drivers, include the following:
— Obey all posted speed limits and the maximum speed of 45 mph
— Lights on for safety
— In areas of limited visibility, always drive on the right side of the road and reduce speed
— All vehicles yield the right of way to loaded trucks
— All traffic must yield to equipment working in the road and pass only after operator’s acknowledgement
Drivers need to be aware of the trucks at all times, Cowperthwaite said, and ensure they are not interfering with their work.
“Some drivers want to try to stay ahead of the trucks to avoid dust,” he said. “That can be incredibly frustrating to the truck drivers — especially if the [recreational] driver slows down to look at a moose.”
For additional safety, drivers should also consider using a MURS or Citizen’s Band radio to monitor logging truck traffic.
“These are working forests and have been part of the forest industry for decades,” said Ked Coffin, district forester for JD Irving Woodlands, owner of 1.1 million acres of the North Maine Woods. “We have a lot of people who derive their living from that forest, and we have always strongly encouraged the cooperation with the public for traditional recreational use.”
For people such as Brittany Lane, owner of Allagash Guide Service, she’d be out of business without the cooperation of the private landowners.
“We use the natural land and rivers for our canoe trips and guided hunting,” Lane said. “Being able to keep the road access helps us bring people out there who might not otherwise be able to experience the land.”
Making sure everyone respects the roads is a key part of that, Lane said.
“It’s extremely important to be aware of the logging traffic,” she said. “The logging companies own those roads, so you need to slow down and keep to your own side of the road at all times.”
Coffin said the Irving company wants to see people enjoy their land, to a point.
“We are happy to have people out there,” he said. “But they need to be aware there is a safety aspect while they are traveling, and they need to respect the men and women who are out there working. They work in a tough environment and are not just out there recreating.”
Seven Islands manages land for the Pingree family who have operated in the North Maine Woods since the middle of the 19th century.
“The Pingrees recognise that the people of Maine own the wildlife and that the waters should be accessible to all,” Medina said. “The North Maine Woods was formed to manage that day use, and it’s a great partnership and we all work well together.”
Cowperthwaite said people entering the North Maine Woods should check with the gatekeepers on road conditions and locations of active logging.
He also recommends having at least one — better, two — spare tires as the gravel roads are notorious for creating flat tires.
“Plan ahead and be prepared,” he said. “There is no cellphone service, and you don’t want to find yourself stuck with no way out.”
Currently roads in the North Maine Woods are muddy and soft, Cowperthwaite said, and drivers can do a great deal of damage in those conditions and are asked to avoid the roads for now.
Updated conditions, including road closures, are posted on the North Maine Woods website.
“It rankles me to see a four-wheel-drive vehicle covered in mud,” Medina said. “People don’t realize they are doing environmental damage as well as creating maintenance issues.”
But as long as the driving public remains respectful of the 5,000 miles of private roads, the landowners don’t see any reason things will change.
“The North Maine Woods is one of the best kept secrets in the country,” Coffin said. “It’s a great example of a working, multiple use forest where it all just comes together.”