Roxanne Quimby | North Woods Controversy in Maine
“Plum Creek is now the largest landowner in the United States,” Jym St. Pierre says. He is the Maine director of a group called RESTORE: The North Woods. In 1994, RESTORE put forward the idea of creating a 3.2-million-acre park: Maine Woods National Park (MWNP). “I saw the signs on the horizon, even back in the 1980s, that things were going to change,” St. Pierre says. “What I didn’t predict was the speed of it. I didn’t think it was going to happen this fast. This is not evolution. This is a revolution.”By 2005, Plum Creek had proposed a plan to rezone and subdivide 400,000 acres surrounding Moosehead Lake. The plan included development of two large resorts and nearly a thousand residential lots on a portion of the land. “This is the largest, most controversial project ever proposed in the history of Maine,” St. Pierre notes.
Unable to gain approval from LURC (the Land Use Regulation Commission, which acts as a zoning board for Maine’s unorganized townships), Plum Creek has revised the plan three times. Its current proposal is under review. Plum Creek has emphasized that most of the land will be placed under “working forest” and conservation easements, a move to calm the fears of environmentalists.
St. Pierre explains that some of the easements will continue to allow timbering, road construction, sawmills, cell towers, herbicide spraying, mining, even subdivision, and are not for conservation but for continuous forestry. “You can shape these easements any way you want,” he says. “Some of them are very good. These Plum Creek easements have no value.”
Plum Creek, however, has forced the hand of many in a state where employment is way down. St. Pierre quotes statistics: 5,000 people once worked in the mills of Millinocket and East Millinocket. Today, only 500 are employed there. That cabbage smell of the paper mills, once known as the smell of money, has been replaced by the faint odor of despair.
“I don’t blame people for clinging to the hope that some of those days will come back,” St. Pierre says. “The forestry industry will survive, but it won’t be the driver anymore. The biggest industry in Maine is tourism, and Plum Creek is trying to tap into that in a way that will give them maximum profit. They buy land cheap and sell it high. They still make money by cutting trees, but they make most of their money cutting up land.”
The debate in Maine over what should happen to this abandoned kingdom gets louder with each passing year. RESTORE has been vocal in its efforts to create the Maine Woods National Park, but its proposal has been rebuffed by many a Mainer. One bumper sticker reads: “RESTORE BOSTON: Leave the Maine Woods Alone.”
“For a long time, we had this big place, over 10 million acres, as big as the whole rest of New England, that people just forgot about,” St. Pierre explains. “It was a big blank spot on the map, and now everybody’s scrapping for it. Everything about this is big. It’s the last big place. Look around the country. I don’t know of any other place that’s in play like this. Even Alaska. We’re all trying to figure out what the brave new world will be up there.”
St. Pierre cites the paper companies’ indulgence in letting the public use their private lands: “The biggest reason we don’t have a national park in Maine today is because we’ve had a de facto park for generations. People feel entitled to that land, just because it’s always been there.”
St. Pierre’s father and grandfather worked in the mills and in the woods. “People thought this land was like a permanent institution, like the U.S. government,” he says. “They thought it was going to be there forever and always be the same. Well, no matter what happens, that is not the case.”