The Maine Way—Land&People

Gene Conlogue, the affable town manager of Millinocket, Maine, recalls a time when ambitious high school graduates were practically guaranteed jobs at local paper mills. With the wages they earned, workers could support their families, squirrel away enough savings for retirement, and maybe lease or own a vacation cabin in the moose-filled woods. But today, Conlogue’s friendly city of 5,000 people on the West Branch of the Penobscot River is in a struggle for survival. The once-thriving wood products industry has been hobbled by foreign competition and domestic consolidation; storefronts sit empty, and many native sons and daughters have had to leave Millinocket for careers elsewhere.

A generation ago, 5,000 workers punched the time clock at the mills here and in neighboring East Millinocket. Today, only a tenth of those jobs remain, and the number of local school students has shrunk from 2,000 in the mid-1980s to 600. Half of the city’s population lives at or below the poverty level, and unemployment is twice the state average.

“I realize we can’t go back to what we had, but we don’t know what the future holds,” Conlogue explains. “All we’ve ever aspired to have is some influence in the decisions that are shaping our lives.”

The reasons behind these changes are complicated, but one factor is that private timber companies, which own most of Maine’s 17.7 million acres of forestland, have been selling off their land as it becomes more valuable for second homes and as a real estate investment than as timberland. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, between 1994 and 2005 the share of Maine’s forests owned by timber companies dropped from 59.2 to 15.5 percent, while the share of forestland owned by financial investors rose from 3.2 percent to 32.6 percent.

Alongside the loss of jobs from the shrinking timber economy, another big concern of the region’s residents has been the potential loss of recreational access to the north woods. By tradition, timber firms granted Mainers unfettered access to hunt, fish, trap, hike, and snowmobile in privately owned forests, provided they didn’t interfere with timber operations. “Maine people have always thought of the north woods as two things—jobs and recreation,” says Alan Stearns, deputy director of the Maine Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Public Lands. But many of the new owners are hauling in the welcome mat to what Stearns calls the region’s “enormous playground,” even as subdivision and home construction are whittling away at wildlife habitat and the north woods’ atmosphere of wild seclusion.

One possible solution to land fragmentation is conservation— setting aside parkland or protecting working forests with conservation easements that prevent development.

But conservation has been controversial in tradition-bound northern Maine. Nearly 20 years ago, a group called RESTORE: the north woods proposed setting aside 3.2 million acres around Millinocket—a land mass larger than the combined area of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks—as the Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. The plan, which some conservationists still hope to effect, incensed Gene Conlogue and other northern Maine residents, who feared that it would lock up the woods, restrict local access, and further weaken the timber economy.

More recently local anger has focused on the plan’s highest-profile proponent, Maine businesswoman and environmentalist Roxanne Quimby—the founder of Burt’s Bees skin care products, who later sold the company and began to invest some of her wealth in purchasing Maine timberlands for conservation. From the desk in his office, Conlogue pulls out a bumper sticker that reads “RESTORE: Boston. Leave Maine’s north woods Alone”—an allusion to north woods residents’ belief that conservation was being imposed on them by wealthy outside elitists. Another bumper sticker reads simply, “Ban Roxanne.”

There was a time when Conlogue proudly displayed both bumper stickers on his own car. But through the course of 2007—even as an epic battle for the soul of Maine’s north woods took shape amid swirling animosity and tension—the leading opponents in that battle quietly started talking to one another. And against the odds, those conversations are beginning to articulate a new vision for the region’s future.

Percival Baxter’s Dream

The forests of Maine represent America’s original north woods. In the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau famously declared that “in wildness is the preservation of the world” after traveling with a Penobscot Indian guide to the mountains, lakes, and rivers of north-central Maine. In 1846, Thoreau scaled Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak, which lies 25 miles north of present-day Millinocket, surveying from the top “immeasurable forest for the sun to shine on. No clearing, no house. It did not look as if a solitary traveler had cut so much as a walking-stick there.”

Several generations later, Katahdin was visited by a vacationing schoolboy from Portland named Percival Baxter. Later, between 1909 and 1924, Baxter served as a state legislator and then Maine’s governor. While governor he tried in vain to convince the state to set aside Mount Katahdin and its environs as a state park. Once out of office, he worked tirelessly for 30 years to create the park, using his own fortune to purchase the land parcel by parcel and donating it to the state. When he died in 1969, he had secured 28 parcels, creating a 200,000-acre state park that now bears his name.

One vital piece of the puzzle eluded his grasp, however. For decades Baxter tried and failed to acquire for the park Katahdin Lake, only a few miles east of Mount Katahdin. The lake’s idyllically picturesque setting has attracted millions of visitors, among them famous ones such as Theodore Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and some of America’s greatest landscape painters, including Frederick Church and Marsden Hartley. For decades conservationists sought to add the lake to the park, and the ultimate success of this effort helped bring into focus the debate about land, livelihood, recreational access, and conservation in northern Maine.

The Trust for Public Land was at the center of this landmark acquisition. In 2004, TPL began negotiations with Gardner Land Company, the Maine-based, familyowned timber company that owned the Katahdin Lake property. In exchange for the lake and 6,000 acres, Gardner wanted harvestable timberlands. With the support of Maine governor John E. Baldacci, TPL’s Sam Hodder and Department of Conservation commissioner Patrick McGowan began the effort to take advantage of what Hodder calls “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to complete Governor Baxter’s vision.”

As part of the complicated deal, TPL and the DOC were handed the daunting task of raising $11.5 million in just 14 months, to be added to $2.5 million in state funds. Skeptics claimed that the money could never be raised in so short a time. As campaign coordinators, Hodder and McGowan worked with partners like the Friends of Baxter State Park; solicited donations from companies that included L.L. Bean, Tom’s of Maine, Camden National Bank, and Poland Springs/Nestlè Water; and enlisted support from prominent Maine historian Howard Whitcomb and from talented artists, who painted scenes of Katahdin Lake to help raise the profile of the project.

In retrospect, Hodder says, there were many times when it appeared the project would fall apart, but perseverance and unyielding support from the governor’s office eventually paid off. The campaign met its fundraising goal by garnering contributions from more than 1,050 people, who gave anywhere from $15 to $1 million and more. More than 60 percent of the donations came from Maine residents. The transaction was completed in December 2006. “Time after time I’ve been able to lean on The Trust for Public Land when we need to deliver results,” Governor Baldacci told Land&People. “There is a limit to what government can do. The Trust for Public Land is an essential piece of the puzzle for some of our most complex recent successes across the state.”

But the success of the Katahdin Lake Project brought new concerns: some sporting associations and community leaders, including Gene Conlogue, felt left out of discussions that determined how the new lands would be managed. The transaction called for 4,000 of the 6,000 acres, including the lake, to be added to Baxter State Park, and in keeping with management policies laid down by Governor Baxter, those acres would be off limits to hunting, trapping, and motorized access. The remaining 2,000 acres, to be managed by DOC, would be open to traditional recreational uses, but were farther from Millinocket and very difficult to reach. While Millinocket is proud to be the gateway community to Baxter State Park, some residents resented the loss of traditional access the transaction represented.

Further complicating local feelings, at about the same time the Katahdin Lake deal was announced, Roxanne Quimby—already a lightning rod for discontent because of the national park proposal—began the purchase of 45,000 acres of former timberland, also east of the park, and announced that she was closing it to logging, hunting, trapping, and motorized use. She also canceled leases on a handful of camps where local people had gone to hunt and fish, and blocked a former logging road that had offered riders of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles access to Maine’s Interconnected Trail System (ITS), a beloved backcountry travel artery for motorized recreation.

Quimby grew up in Massachusetts, went to art school in San Francisco, and relocated to Maine in 1975, when she was 24. Around Millinocket, she is variously described as a former hippie, a savvy businesswoman, and an idealistic environmentalist in the mold of Thoreau. Until recently, few here, including Gene Conlogue, had ever met or would even recognize Quimby. But as rhetoric around land use in northern Maine began to heat up, Conlogue’s phone rang: it was Quimby on the line. She also called George Smith, executive director of the Maine Sportsman’s Alliance, who had raised questions about access at Katahdin Lake.

“As all of this was heating up, I should have been the first one to pick up the phone and make the call,” Conlogue says, “but Roxanne beat me to it. To her credit, she reached out to me and to others who were feeling frustrated. She said, ‘Let’s talk.'” Soon an unlikely group that included Quimby, Smith, Conlogue, TPL’s Hodder, and others was meeting once a month, rotating among Bangor, Millinocket, and Augusta. “Both sides recognized that if we keep sparring, we’ll all lose, as the land we all love is carved up by private investment interests,” says Sam Hodder. “The various interests thought, let’s see if we can trust each other and find some common ground.”

A Changing Way of Life

Up a remote winding road in Baxter State Park, Paul Sannicandro, who oversees the park’s trails, stops for a breather. Tens of thousands of hikers, anglers, wildlife watchers, scout troops, and berry pickers descend on Baxter during the warm months, although visitation dropped 40 percent between the mid-1990s and 2007. Sannicandro worries that, as Mainers move away from the north woods, their affinity for nature is going with them.

Like many locals, Sannicandro feels conflicted over the changes to northern Maine’s landscape. By day he wears a park badge, but he spends his free time pursuing the life of a sportsman, casting for trout in bucolic tarns, stalking deer and moose in the fall, guiding clients, and exploring an old network of backcountry logging roads on foot, ATV, and snowmobile. “My feelings are so mixed. I don’t feel like I’m being disenfranchised, but the world is changing all around,” he says. “My redneck friends call me a tree hugger and my tree hugger friends call me a redneck.” Then he jokes: “I hug a tree every time I climb into my deer stand.”

Sannicandro has been active in the grassroots group ConnectME, which is working to establish recreation trails into the forest—including trails for snowmobiles and ATVs. He sees the ConnectME network as not only a way to keep young people involved in outdoor sporting and recreation activities but also as an avenue to a more prosperous tourist economy, which Millinocket desperately needs. Part of the trail system was routed across land owned by Roxanne Quimby. And Sannicandro acknowledges that the respect for private property rights in Maine runs deep.

“It’s a paradox,” he says. “Yes, it’s private land, but local people feel as though they should have a place on it, even though they’re not entitled. That’s the bittersweet truth. For someone like me, who wants to continue hunting and fishing until the day I die, finding places to do it is becoming more difficult.”

Other Millinocket residents believe that conservation may bolster the region’s economic future. One of these is Matthew Polstein, who serves on both the town council and the local school board. “When I got here ten years ago, there were a hundred and twenty-five kids in the graduating senior class. Today there are thirty-five,” Polstein notes. “We’ve got to do something to turn around the outward flow of families and young people. Our greatest asset, which much of the world does not have, is an awe-inspiring landscape.”

This landscape has been attracting Mainers and outof-state tourists since Thoreau’s time. Visitors to the region come to hunt and fish, but also to camp and hike in Baxter State Park, to canoe placid lakes and kayak or raft the wild waters of the Penobscot and Allagash Rivers, which flow from either side of Mount Katahdin.

Polstein—who might be described as an ecoentrepreneur— points out that the value of the north woods as woodsy retreat and vacation destination can only increase over time. He founded the New England Outdoor Center, a family business that rents out guest cabins at Millinocket Lake and provides raft trips down the Penobscot and other rivers, and he is endeavoring to build a $65 million, ecologically sensitive hotel that caters to adventure-minded tourists who possess an environmental ethic. Friends call him a visionary, but he admits it’s not always easy to get his neighbors to embrace conservation and a future based on sustainable tourism when so many families are struggling to put food on the table.

A Shared Vision For The Future

On a resplendent spring morning, Sam Hodder swings into Millinocket, bound for an annual weeklong fishing trip west of the Allagash River with close friends. The day before, he had attended a meeting of Maine landowners and conservationists to hear a presentation by Quimby, Conlogue, and Smith on how their unexpected collaboration might help change the nature of the debate over the north woods in Maine.

“The transformation has been remarkable,” he says. “We went into these meetings expecting fireworks and accusations from all sides and came out with the makings of a collaborative vision for the landscape east of Baxter State Park.”

Last November, TPL signed an agreement with Quimby that establishes a critical recreational access corridor across her land along with a two-year timeline to purchase nearly 11,000 acres of her land under terms that give residents guaranteed access to the Interconnected Trail System. The project has been targeted by the governor as a top priority for funding through the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, and it has already received an allocation of state funds from the board of Land for Maine’s Future. Maine’s congressional delegation has also expressed strong support for the groundbreaking project, in large part because of the broad community support it has generated as a model for future collaboration in the region.

“The Trust for Public Land has played the role of a behind-the-scenes broker between Roxanne Quimby, our bureau, and the town of Millinocket,” says DOC’s Stearns. “Gene Conlogue charted the vision, but TPL was right behind him with expertise, up-front investment, and the thousands of hours of technical work it takes to get deals like these inked.”

While it remains Quimby’s desire to make her tracts part of a national park, forest, or recreation area someday, she is talking with Smith and others about alternatives. As Conlogue and Smith learned, Quimby’s affection for Maine’s landscape, like their own, is genuine. In the Kennebec Journal newspaper, Smith recently penned: “Roxanne Quimby used to be my enemy. And when she reached out to me to find common ground, I did not want to like her. It still amazes me that we were able to move so far beyond the bitterness and disappointment of our earlier relationship to a place where I look forward to our conversations and meetings.”

To many observers, the benefits growing from this new collaboration go beyond deals over landownership and land access. “The most positive dynamic in Millinocket is the growth of local leadership with a focus on proactive solutions,” notes Stearns. “With so much change in Millinocket’s economy, it’s critically important that local people are invested in a vision for the future. Several people took remarkable personal and professional risks to broker a compromise that allowed local interests to gain ground.”

Quimby agrees. Much to the chagrin of her former antagonists, she hasn’t given up hope of one day bringing to Maine a conservation vision for the 21st century that rivals what Baxter imagined in the 20th century and Thoreau mused about in the 19th century. Meantime, she just may accept an offer from Conlogue and Smith to buy her a cup of coffee and a piece of fresh-baked blueberry pie. “By necessity, we can only gain by letting go,” Quimby says. “We won’t get everything we want, but if we are able to distill out what we need, it’s probable that we can achieve a great deal.”

For Hodder and TPL, the greatest satisfaction transcends even the permanent protection of Katahdin Lake and the dividends of conservation on neighboring lands. The process has generated a renewed reverence for the north woods, building on the vision of Thoreau and Baxter but relevant to Mainers today.

“Are we setting a precedent for the collaborative process? Definitely,” Hodder opines. “These roundtable discussions have changed the nature of the debate over the region’s future. Mainers are establishing a new standard for how to move forward. It’s a lesson that other parts of the country might be able to learn.”

Montana-based writer Todd Wilkinson writes for many national magazines and is a western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He is currently writing a book about Ted Turner. Aerial photo on pages 10-11 courtesy of Lighthawk—championing environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight.