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The Planet
Mainers Embrace 100-Mile Wilderness

By Tom Valtin

One of the most spectacular parts of the Maine Woods is the "100-Mile Wilderness" segment of the Appalachian Trail, renowned as the longest stretch of the trail uninterrupted by paved roads. But despite its name, the 100-Mile Wilderness is by no means a preserved wilderness. In fact, it is "protected" only by a very narrow corridor, in some places a mere 250-foot buffer between the trail and the industrial forest.

" The 100-Miles Wilderness is at risk," says Karen Woodsum, a native of the Pine Tree State who for the past three years has served as director of the Sierra Club’s Maine Woods Campaign.

Unlike the western U.S., where much of the land is already publicly owned, nearly all the forest land in Maine is private, held by paper companies. "Historically, these have been Maine-owned companies," Woodsum explains "But lately land has been turning over to out-of-state businesses and landowners." Clearcuts and heavy roadbuilding have recently occurred at dangerous proximity to the area.

" The Maine-based companies, on the whole, wanted to be good stewards of the land," says Bob LeRoy, an outfitter and Sierra Club member who runs an historic wilderness sporting camp in the heart of the 100-Mile region. "But over the last five years, that’s all changed."

The absentee corporations, say wilderness advocates, are operating on a timetable suitable to their investors’ interests—that is, quick profits in a short period. In the last 15 years, an area larger than the state of Delaware has been clearcut, including 100-acre swaths right up to the edge of Gulf Hagas, Maine’s "Grand Canyon," located in the 100-Mile area.

The Sierra Club has been working closely with the Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust (MATLT), an independent, locally-based land trust that works on land protection issues along the trail in Maine. Much of the land along the 100-Mile Wilderness corridor has been held for years in large undeveloped tracts by forest products companies.

" These lands represent some of the most diverse natural communities in the state, and they provide an important recreational resource," says Tom Lewis, president of MATLT. "But many of these tracts, held for so long by stable corporations, have recently been changing hands at an alarming rate. The conditions that have up to now conserved the wild character of the trail in Maine cannot be counted on in the future."

Conservation biologists generally agree that to protect native biodiversity, large blocks of strategically linked wildlands must be preserved. Connecting the celebrated Allagash Wilderness Waterway to Baxter State Park and enhancing protection along the 100-Mile corridor would result in a large-scale wilderness that could support the full range of native species and function as a keystone for restoration of Eastern wilderness as a whole.

" We have a huge chunk of wild country up here," says Bob LeRoy, "but we need to protect this area before it’s chopped up and sold off to lakefront development and kingdom buyers." One such magnate recently purchased an entire northern Maine township near the 100-Mile region, and accelerated logging and roadbuilding have allowed motorized vehicles to reach formerly remote areas. "Even the old-time woodsmen are shaking their heads," LeRoy says.

When Woodsum was hired by the Sierra Club, she was aware that earlier efforts to push for wilderness protection in Maine hadn’t built sufficient grassroots support from Maine residents. One of her first actions was to set up an advisory group that included a resource economist from the University of Maine, a hunter who was also president of a local wildlife refuge, a forestry expert, a sporting camp owner, a Maine wilderness historian, several ecologist/biologists, and a number of longtime local Sierra Club volunteer leaders.

" It was while meeting with this group that the idea for a 100-Mile Wilderness Area hit us," Woodsum says. "So many of the natural treasures we were most concerned with protecting were all lined up along this section of the Appalachian Trail."

Woodsum knew that grassroots support from Maine residents had to be the bedrock for the 100-Mile Wilderness campaign, so from the get-go she and others on the campaign solicited the input of northern Maine residents. "We found that most folks believe there can and should be a balance between wilderness and timber interests," she says. "People often ask how much acreage we’re advocating for the 100-Mile Wilderness Area. We say, ‘We don’t know—what do you think would be good?’ Often as not, they’ll suggest a bigger figure than we’d come up with ourselves."

" People up there are worried that Maine’s forests are being ruined, and they want to protect some of the state’s special places," says longtime Maine Chapter leader Carole Haas. "Establishing a 100-Mile Wilderness Area would help diversify northern Maine’s struggling economy and reduce reliance on the timber industry."

Since the Sierra Club does not make land purchases, the Maine Woods Campaign has focused on political and advocacy work. "We generate letters-to-the-editor, we host speakers who give wilderness seminars, and we have a group called Women’s Voices for the Environment that hosts forums to gather support for the project," Haas explains. "Our campaign organizer meets with wilderness supporters around the state on a regular basis, urging them to form their own groups independent of the Sierra Club."

Karen Woodsum says chapter volunteers have been organizing, doing public events, attending hearings, and pulling together different people and organizations. "And now we have a governor, John Baldacci, who has expressed his commitment to protecting Maine’s wilderness heritage and is interested in the notion of a nature-based economy," she says. "Governor Baldacci has identified the 100-Mile Wilderness region as a top priority for protection during his administration, and he recently established the 100-Mile Wilderness Working Group to move the concept forward.

"This thing is really taking off," Woodsum exults.

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