The philosopher from Concord envisioned a preserve in the "mossy, moosey" Maine Woods. Is it still worth saving?
by Ted Williams
Last August I joined a whitewater expedition down the East Outlet of Moosehead Lake in
the heart of the 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. Here, at the top
of the Kennebec, the stacks of standing waves were plenty high enough to intimidate the
tough inner-city kids of Boy Scout Troop 263 out of Hartford, Connecticut.
Big woods and clean water were alien to them. "I'm nervous," announced one as
we spun down the current in our inflatable "ducky" kayaks. "I don't know
how to paddle," cried another. All of them flipped at least once. At the storied
"Swimming Hole" rapid, half a dozen opted for portage, saying, "No way,
But after the remaining seven survived the plunge, everybody carried their duckies back
upriver and relaunched, their bright, plastic helmets vanishing in whirlpools and geysers.
For an hour I watched as they shouted, swam, bobbed, and scampered up the steep banks-
future advocates of Maine Woods National Park and Preserve, which (I probably should
admit) doesn't exist yet.
In the flat stretches I lay back, looking at the green canopy rushing past, remembering
my youth and thinking about the changes I had seen in Maine. I was not much older than the
scouts when I'd worked at the Kennebec Log Driving Company, negotiating this water in a
life jacket, stabbing mid-river jams with a peavey and hauling myself up onto them. I'd
extract logs with increasing care until the whole jam would shudder and I'd leap back into
the flow with an acre of surging pulpwood 20 feet behind me.
Until 1976 the public couldn't use rivers like the upper Kennebec because they were
reserved for the paper industry as conduits to get logs to downriver mills, and it
couldn't use the lower rivers either because effluent from the mills rendered the water a
health hazard. At Indian Pond, where the scouts and I hauled out, and again at West Forks,
where the river falls and spreads from a brawling run, the logs used to be corralled by
booms in huge rafts that covered nearly every surface acre for the 35 miles to Solon.
Driving along Route 201, you could smell the rafts with the windows closed-nothing woodsy,
more reminiscent of an uncapped landfill.
Along the lower Kennebec, where the paper mills swilled logs and belched sulfurous
bile, the odor took on a new character-basically boiled cabbage gone bad. On damp autumn
mornings it used to drive me out of the grouse woods and back into classes at Colby
College. In Waterville, just upstream from where I hunted ducks, the pulp logs reentered
the river in their final, processed form-as toilet paper. When the flow dropped during
off-peak generating periods, the gray strips hung from snags and alders like Spanish moss.
And in summer, fish carcasses, silver bellies sunward, shot down the methane-charged
current as prolifically and predictably as the Perseid meteors.
But in 1997, on the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, I floated the same
section, spying mussels and smallmouth bass ten feet down and catching two-pound brown
trout on dry flies. Environmentalists had gotten the log drives banned four years after
President Nixon signed the act. To their horror, the response of the paper industry was to
carve up the North Woods with about 25,000 miles of haul roads. Habitat became fragmented,
and remote brook-trout ponds, shielded from a ravenous public by a morning's hike, were
suddenly accessible by station wagon.
It is this sort of abuse that Maine Woods National Park and Preserve is designed to
prevent. The dream was hatched by brash, in-your-face people from Concord, Massachusetts,
who call themselves "RESTORE: The North Woods." For anyone who loves wild things
and wild places and has watched the razing of the North Woods by multinational paper
companies, it's the kind of dream you don't want to wake up from.
Protected would be the headwaters of six major rivers, including the Allagash, most of
Moosehead Lake, hundreds of other lakes and ponds, and the hundred wildest miles of the
Appalachian Trail. Park advocates, including the Sierra Club, have been distributing
realistic National Park Service- style guides written as if the park/ preserve already
exists; and scarcely a summer day passes without some tourist asking paper company
pooh-bahs how to get to the national park. It drives them nuts.
As the park guide explains, hunting, trapping, and snowmobiling would be prohibited in
the park, while whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and camping would be
permitted. In the preserve-the size of which is yet to be determined-all existing
recreation would continue.
The park proposal shook the conservative Pine Tree State. The "wise-use"
crowd spewed rhetoric. "A wilderness forest produces nothing," proclaimed Robert
Voight of the Maine Conservation Rights Institute. "Who is going to stop this enviro
madness, this social revolution, this destitution of our great Constitution? The fire of
tyranny is raging." Even some environmental groups talked up "traditional land
uses" and warned about culture shock.
As a fund-raising tool, the park concept proved invaluable to the Sportsman's Alliance
of Maine (SAM), which presumes to speak for hunters and fishermen but which more often
speaks for property-rights zealots and the paper companies that help fund it. "Now we
offer those frustrated [forest] workers and sportsmen a place to turn," wrote
director George Smith. "We urge them to join SAM, and to join our battle to drive
RESTORE back across the Kittery Bridge [to Massachusetts]. They can take their agenda
someplace else. There is no place in Maine for a new national park."
For all the invective, though, creating a Maine Woods National Park and Preserve is not
really such a radical idea. In fact, it isn't even a new idea. It was first proposed 146
years ago by a brash, in-your-face guy also from Concord who called for "national
preserves where no villages need be destroyed, in which the bear and panther, and some
even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be 'civilized off the face of the
earth.' " He was branded an extremist, a radical, a misanthrope. His name was Henry
On a bitter February day I inspected Maine's "unorganized townships," roughly
the northern half of the state and site of Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. My
guide and pilot was Rudy Engholm-a member of Northern Wings, a regional group of volunteer
pilots who show reporters, politicians, and resource managers the difference between what
industry press releases say the earth looks like and what it really looks like. In this
part of Maine there are no local governments and, often, no people. Just the holdings of
multinational paper companies that, thanks to feeble state regulations, can essentially do
whatever they like. In the last 15 years they've clearcut an area the size of Delaware,
frequently blitzing pioneering hardwoods with herbicides.
North of the "beauty strip" of standing trees that circles Brassua Lake like
tennis-ball fuzz, we intersected the edge of the Ragmuff clearcut-a circular swath with a
diameter of about ten miles. Farther north, we picked up the 92-mile-long Allagash River,
a national wild-and-scenic river managed as a "wilderness waterway" by the Maine
Department of Conservation. No canoer should miss a week on the Allagash, but don't wander
too far into the woods because there are only 500 feet of them on either side. Beyond the
beauty strip, Maine's "working forest," as the paper industry likes to call it,
is not just in bad shape; it's gone. For as far as we could see-into the haze of
Canada-the bare, broken earth was veined with skidder trails and haul roads. "I burn
wood," declared Engholm. "I'm not against cutting trees. But I believe there's a
difference between a haircut and a scalping."
Still, there are vast areas of the North Woods that have healed and look fine. The most
notable healed wilderness is 200,000-acre Baxter State Park, which Maine Governor Percival
Baxter purchased for the public with his own money, starting with 5,960 acres in 1930. As
Baxter learned, the one good thing about clearcutting is that it dramatically reduces the
price of wildland. Scattered through the state park's reborn forests are more than 60
wild-trout ponds, about 100 miles of wild-trout streams, 185 miles of hiking trails, and
46 mountain peaks, 18 of them over 3,000 feet. The highest of these-at 5,267 feet-is Mt.
Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. But even with the state park,
Maine has the lowest proportion of publicly owned land of any state in the Northeast.
I think Baxter is at its best just after the warblers rustle back through the hardwoods
and just before the legions of black flies shuck their larval exoskeletons and rise like
coal smoke from forest rills. In recent years I have backpacked into the park twice, both
times camping beside Russell Pond, shallow, circular, and strewn with moose and moose-size
chunks of granite. The first spring a late snow spoiled the fishing, but the following
year I could scarcely keep the brook trout off my hook. I fried them in bacon fat between
blazing aspen and blazing stars, eating with my fingers, listening to the demonic cackling
of barred owls and watching the smoke rise straight into the infinite northern night.
Governor Baxter was one in an endless procession of conservation-minded citizens before
and since who have sought to control forest abuse in Maine. "In my travels in foreign
lands I have seen beautiful great forests that for centuries have been producing a crop of
wood without depletion," Baxter wrote the legislature in 1955. That year he donated
30,000 acres to the park for "scientifically controlled forestry." Logging
"without depletion" was such a radical concept that the Maine Forest Service
didn't get around to attempting it until 1983, at which time it began butchering the
park's Scientific Forest Management Area with clearcutting, high-grading (cutting the good
stuff and leaving the junk), and skidding entire trees to the roadside. A lawsuit by
private citizens Charles Fitzgerald and Bill Butler turned out to be the only way to
control the state's logging controllers.
Next the public demanded a state forest-practices act. What it got in 1991 supposedly
controls clearcuts by restricting them to 250 acres. But if you leave more than 30 square
feet of trees (measured at their bases), it doesn't count as a clearcut. That's the
equivalent of laying a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood on a football field. A 1996
ballot initiative to ban clearcutting in the unorganized townships died after logging
interests mounted a $12 million campaign against it.
As reform efforts fail, the trees keep crashing. South African Pulp and Paper
Industries led in razing the state's forests for the last four years, simultaneously
assuring the public that it is committed to long-term, high-yield silviculture. Then last
October, the company sold 905,000 acres. The buyer: Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber, which
has a reputation for rapacious logging that eclipses even its predecessor's and which
enhances its profits by hawking lake and river frontage for subdivisions. Included in the
sale were numerous remote ponds, undeveloped shoreline on Moosehead Lake, and extensive
frontage along the still-wild Moose, Roach, and Kennebec rivers. With scant federal or
state money available for land purchase and 70 million people living within an eight-hour
drive, these holdings could easily fall into the clutches of developers.
In late October South Carolina-based Bowater sold a million acres to J. D. Irving, a
Canadian firm. Irving not only removes forests by clearcutting, it permanently prevents
their recovery by planting monocultures of cloned seedlings. The sale made Irving the
biggest landowner in Maine.
With the ownership shuffle comes an increased threat of development. The state has
granted permits for 5,000 houses and camps, many on formerly wild lakes and rivers, on
land once owned by paper companies. Some 200,000 acres have been subdivided. More than
half the lakeshore development since 1971 has occurred on the state's best wilderness
lakes-ones it once declared to have "statewide significance."
Even if you consider dollars only, selling Maine's wildland to second-home developers
is madness. "People come to the North Woods because it's undeveloped," remarks
Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "If they hike or canoe in
for a day and get to a lake, they don't want to see somebody's cottage." Tourism in
Maine already generates more jobs than agriculture, forestry, and commercial fishing
combined. Studies commissioned by RESTORE indicate that the proposed national park and
preserve could bolster the state's economy with between $109 million and $435 million in
annual retail sales and support 5,000 to 20,000 jobs.
In Rockwood, as on the upper Kennebec, I saw the real, lasting value of the Maine
Woods. John Willard, who runs The Birches resort with his brother Bill and who hosted my
whitewater trip with the scouts, hiked with me along mountain-bike and cross-country-ski
trails carpeted with grass and ferns and shaded by a lush broadleaf canopy. The Birches
cabins and tents are pretty much full through the summer and on winter weekends. Kayakers
retracing Thoreau's course up Moosehead Lake from Mt. Kineo to North East Carry sleep in
yurts strategically placed through The Birches' woods.
The next morning I retraced a little of Thoreau's course myself, alternately plowing
into and surfing down Moosehead's gathering waves in one of The Birches' sea kayaks. Then,
from the Rockwood marina, I caught the hourly Mt. Kineo shuttle-an antique Navy launch
powered by a Perkins three-cylinder diesel and captained by the good-humored Paul
McCourtney, an encyclopedia of natural and human history. Mt. Kineo, America's largest
body of flint, juts 800 feet skyward from Moosehead's middle. Indians, drawn to the
mountain as a source for knives and hunting points, claimed that it had been a celestial
moose hurled to Earth in a fit of pique by the Great Spirit.
Climbing Indian Trail proved a mistake-not because it was steep, although it was, but
because the couple who rode in the launch with me took the more level Warden Cabin route
and reached the summit two minutes ahead of me. Therefore I missed the pair of peregrine
falcons that buzzed them at the top of the fire tower.
The view consoled me-most of it anyway. I held the metal rail and, on all compass
points, gazed out over 25 miles of the proposed Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. I
saw white specks of boats trolling for deep-dwelling lake trout, shimmering bays and
emerald islands, distant lakes silver and copper, beige clearcuts, green clearcuts,
winding streams and straight logging roads, ridges stacked on ridges and darkening from
blue to purple along Earth's hazy curve. Spruces creaked; the hysterical laughter of a
pileated woodpecker drifted up from halfway down the mountain; and somewhere in the azure
sky, too high for my eyes, a raven croaked.
Depending on who you listen to, creating a 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park
and Preserve in the best, wildest part of the East is politically impossible or just very
difficult-as difficult, say, as making national parks and preserves in the California
desert ten years ago. The opposition of Maine Independent Governor Angus King is a
formidable roadblock. "I am dead set against the idea," he splutters. After
spending two years telling its members about the horrific deficiencies of the park scheme,
the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine collected 30,000 signatures against it. A similar effort
by the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce resulted in a poll in which 178 of its
180 members expressed opposition. On the other hand, an independent statewide poll
revealed 63 percent of Maine residents in favor.
On my last day in Maine I climbed Big Spencer Mountain in clear, T-shirt weather. I
wasn't sure if the six ladders on the trail made the climb easier or constituted an
attractive nuisance. With me were Jym St. Pierre, the lifelong Mainer who directs RESTORE,
and Joan Saxe, the registered Maine guide who chairs the Sierra Club's Maine Chapter. Both
are living rebuttals to the charge that park advocates are city people from away.
"The Sierra Club helped create Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Kings Canyon, and the new
parks in Alaska," Saxe said. "We're going to get a Maine Woods National Park and
Preserve. Just watch."
From the 3,230-foot summit we inspected 2 million acres of the proposed park and
preserve-Bowater holdings to the north, Plum Creek holdings to the south. To the east rose
the gray tundra of Mt. Katahdin and the ragged shoulder of OJI Mountain, torn by
landslides said to look like the letters of its name. Lakes stretched and curled in all
directions-to the northeast, Ragged, Caribou, and Chesuncook; to the northwest, Lobster;
to the southwest, Moosehead. Thirty miles to the north we could make out the blue pimple
of Poland Mountain. Fifteen miles to the northwest a cloud of dust rose from the Golden
Road, probably kicked up by a logging truck. At least from this spot and this elevation
the scene had not visibly changed since Thoreau chronicled it from Katahdin: "There
it was, the state of Maine. 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.
Countless lakes-Moosehead . . . Chesuncook . . . Millinocket . . . and a hundred others
without name; and mountains also. The forest looked like a firm grass sward, and the
effect of these lakes in its midst has been well compared, by one who has since visited
this same spot, to that of a 'mirror broken into a thousand fragments, and wildly
scattered over the grass, reflecting the full blaze of the sun.' "
Munching mountain cranberries, we leaned back against moss-cloaked granite and gazed
out at Maine's working forest.
"This could be yours," said Jym St. Pierre.
Ted Williams is a freelance writer who specializes in fish and wildlife. He wrote
"Natural Allies," on environmentalists' relationship with hunters and anglers, in Sierra's September/October 1996 issue.