FORT KENT, Maine — There is little chance the forests and wild lands of northern Maine can ever be returned to their pristine state, but a group of conservationists sees no reason they can’t be at least partially restored and protected for generations to come.
RESTORE: The North Woods has advocated the formation of a multimillion-acre park or preserve in north central Maine since 1994, and on Friday the group’s director discussed the plan with students, faculty and guests at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
“I can’t see another place in the United States where we could even be having this discussion,” said Jym St. Pierre, RESTORE director. “We are talking about 3 million-plus acres that could be acquired without disrupting people or communities.”
The area in question has long been the center of timber and logging operations in Maine going back to the early to mid-1800s when lumber from the great northern forest produced enough raw material to help Bangor become the lumber capital of the world.
Toward the middle and end of that century, the recreational value of the vast tracts of forests began to attract the likes of Henry David Thoreau and later Theodore Roosevelt, with the railroads billing it “America’s wilderness playground.”
All of which, St. Pierre said, helped shape conservation policy in this country and beyond.
“I would say the Maine woods changed Henry David Thoreau and he, in turn, changed the world,” he said. “After coming to Maine, Teddy Roosevelt went on to create 234 million acres of protected parks, but he could not protect 1 acre in Maine.”
That was because, St. Pierre explained, by 1878 virtually all the public land in Maine had been sold or given over to private landowners.
“The northern forest is an extraordinary place that deserves extraordinary protection,” St. Pierre said. “It is one of the last big places of undeveloped land on the East Coast.”
The idea of creating a 3.2 million-acre park and preserve in northern Maine was not something RESTORE created out of a vacuum, St. Pierre said.
Groups including the Appalachian Mountain Club, The Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club along with private conservationists including Roxanne Quimby have purchased large tracts around Baxter State Park to add to the state’s public lands, St. Pierre said.
But more is needed, he said, pointing to recent Land Use Regulation Commission approvals for development around Moosehead lake as signs more and more of Maine’s woodlands could fall into developers’ hands as the large timber companies fall victim to weak markets and sell their holdings.
St. Pierre admits there has been “an explosion” of conservation easements between the state and large landowners but said those are designed more with forest harvest management in mind than strict conservation.
“The Maine woods is like an island in a sea of expanding landscape development,” St. Pierre said. “That’s why everybody has their eye on it and now is the last best chance for large-scale, big-landscape conservation.”
Creation of a national park or preserve in the north Maine woods could do for that region what Acadia National Park does for coastal Maine, St. Pierre said.
“Twenty-two million people a year visit Acadia and pump in a $145 million investment,” he said. “That’s responsible for 3,000 local jobs.”
Within RESTORE’s overall plan, St. Pierre said, there is room for all kinds of traditional use while at the same time preventing “misplaced development.”
Species would be protected; camp owners would see ownership stability; and wilderness would be restored.
At the same time, he said, designating part of the parcel as a “preserve” would maintain access for mechanized recreation including snowmobiling and four-wheeling in addition to hunting and trapping.
“The economics is this: Forest industry jobs are being cut more and more, and a northern public wilderness area would attract clean businesses to Maine.”
Sen. Troy Jackson’s District 35 covers part of the area RESTORE is eyeing, and while Jackson supports conservation measures, he’s not convinced a national park is the answer to the state’s economic troubles.
“The issue is people have access to this area that would be the park and they don’t go there now,” Jackson said. “It’s a really nice idea, but I don’t see it drawing people from around the U.S.”
Jackson pointed out the scenic wilderness in his hometown of Allagash — the Allagash Wilderness Waterway — is experiencing declining usage numbers annually.
“It comes down to what do we want for our future in this area, and we have some important decisions to make,” he said.