Maine Mountains Park — Maine Mountains Park, shown in light green on the large map above, would protect roughly 2 million acres in Western Maine along the borders of New Hampshire and Quebec. The inset image, bottom right, shows location in the state. Adirondack State Park in more-populous Upstate New York, blue at top right, was the inspiration for the proposal in this article.
Maine Mountains Park — Maine Mountains Park, shown in light green on the large map above, would protect roughly 2 million acres in Western Maine along the borders of New Hampshire and Quebec. The inset image, bottom right, shows location in the state. Adirondack State Park in more-populous Upstate New York, blue at top right, was the inspiration for the proposal in this article.
I’ve recently been writing about the increasing environmental threats to the Maine North Woods, especially to the forests of the western Maine mountains. This column proposes a Maine Mountains Park, modeled on New York State’s Adirondack Park, as a means to repel current and future threats to a big portion of this beautiful part of Maine’s natural heritage.

My radical assumption is that the North Woods are worth more than the bottom line on a corporation’s balance sheet.

First, a brief summary of the threats:

• The immediate menace is Central Maine Power Co.’s proposal for a giant power-line corridor that would cut through the forests of the mountains south of Jackman. (See my two columns on this subject at freepressonline.com.)

• Over the long term, a possibly larger threat is the Land Use Planning Commission’s recent rezoning for development of nearly a million of the 10-million-plus acres of the Unorganized Territory — the North Woods half of the state — including significant portions of the western mountains. (See my column on this at freepressonline.com.)

• Overcutting of the Maine forest is a perennial threat and, historically, an ugly reality. It’s driven by industrial landowners maximizing their short-term profits. Overcutting — especially, clear-cutting — destroys habitats for wildlife and fish, and places for human recreation and aesthetic delight.

• There also are many long-term and not-easily-calculated threats to the North Woods from global warming. They could include more insect infestations, which in the past have incited forest landowners to cut mercilessly instead of managing the pests by selective cutting.

They could include human migration as temperatures rise. An exodus from the Southern United States 50 years from now could put many new development pressures on Maine, including on our cool-climate mountains.

The threats from climate change are not just to humans. Animals — including rare species such as lynx — as well as many plants may need to cling to higher elevations or migrate north.

At present, the mountains’ “unfragmented forests and complex topography make it a highly resilient landscape in the face of climate change,” writes Janet McMahon in a research paper for the Maine Mountain Collaborative, a conservation-group coalition. The state’s mountains are a vital passage between other big forests to the southwest and northeast.

That is, if our mountain forests are kept unfragmented.

The solutions

If these threats are accepted as problems to solve, the solutions are preservation, planning and regulation.

In the 1800s, the forests of the Adirondack Mountains were not just threatened, they were being ravaged by logging. So much so that many movers and shakers in New York City and elsewhere in the state became alarmed. They understood that their urban water supply — as well as water for the then-multiplying canal systems — came from the forested highlands with their thousands of lakes.

In addition, the Adirondacks were becoming a vacation playground for the Eastern elite. These worthies wanted to protect the environment they enjoyed, just as they have on the Maine coast.

It’s hard to believe it happened as far back as the 1880s and 1890s, but the far-sighted legislature and voters of New York dealt with this environmental destruction by drawing a blue line on a map around the entire mountain range. They called the land within the line a park, and they restricted logging and, eventually, much other exploitation of the natural world. The park grew to encompass 6 million acres, about as big as Vermont or New Hampshire.

The Adirondack Park is very different from most parks in the world. To cite Wikipedia: “Unlike most preserves, about 52 percent of the land is privately owned.... This area contains 102 towns and villages, as well as numerous farms, businesses and an active timber-harvesting industry. The year-round population is 132,000, with 200,000 seasonal residents. The inclusion of human communities makes the park one of the great experiments in conservation in the industrialized world.”

The experiment has worked. In New York State, the park is beloved. No serious person suggests getting rid of it. Jonathan Carter, former Maine Green Party candidate for governor, has recently spent time hiking the Adirondacks. He reports that he had “no idea” this “spectacular” park was so successful.

Testimony to the park’s success is that time and again in referendums and through their representatives in the capitol at Albany, the citizens of New York have voted to buy land for the park and to increase regulations within it. After 130 years, the purchasing of land and the reshaping of the park are still going on.

With this example in mind, it seems reasonable, then, to suggest a big green line be drawn around our western Maine mountains. At this point, it must be a very crude one, as shown on the accompanying map. It also seems reasonable to ask the state to spend 50 to 100 years purchasing from one to two million acres (my crude estimate of the total park area on the map is 2 million acres).

And to ask the state to shape the Maine Mountains Park into a world-class preserve and well-planned and -regulated playground, as well as a place where the locals can make a decent living.

(A word on the names on the map: Much of the area is often referred to as the Blue Mountains and sometimes the Longfellow Mountains, but a portion of the longer Boundary Mountains is included in the park suggested here. The entire area is often called the western Maine mountains — the name I’ve adopted — although sometimes that name is used for all mountains west of the state’s center. Then in the south there’s the Mahoosuc Range, an extension of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.)

There’s no reason to think that such a park wouldn’t work as well in Maine as it has in New York. The similarities between the two regions include countless lakes and streams and lots of bare peaks that hikers from the Northeast have been climbing for generations; lovely old resort towns; a forest-products industry that employs many of the locals; even a similar small set of downhill ski areas.

But there are differences that could make a Maine Mountains Park even more practicable to create and manage. Being mostly in the Unorganized Territory, it would contain far fewer people. My estimate is 7,000. This small population would make conflicts rarer between human economic insatiability (or, to be nicer to our species, call it dynamism) and the preservation of the natural world.

Because the western Maine mountains are farther from a big population center, they haven’t faced — so far — the tourist and summer-home pressure long endured by the Adirondacks, which early became a resort for people from New York City.

Our mountains, too, don’t have the large number of elaborate “great camps” of rich people — with their vast, exclusive hunting and fishing preserves — that the Adirondacks became famous for. Many of their owners long resisted their purchase by the park.

And our mountains have an asset the Adirondacks don’t have: the Appalachian Trail running across them.

Politically, how to do it

There are many elements of what has made the Adirondack Park a success that we could directly imitate. A major one is its Forest Preserve, which in an 1885 law was required to be “forever kept as wild forest lands.” The language was put into the state constitution in 1894.

Does “forever wild” ring a bell? Our former Gov. Percival Baxter appropriated that phrase when he donated land to the state to create Baxter State Park and insisted that it be kept similarly undeveloped.

The Adirondack Forest Preserve, where logging is not permitted, has grown over the decades to encompass almost half the park. A million acres of the preserve is designated wilderness, where motorized vehicles aren’t allowed. A Maine Mountains Park should also have a “forever wild” component, though hunting and fishing, as in the Adirondacks, could continue to be permitted.

As in the Adirondacks, well-regulated logging on private land within the Maine park could continue. In my mind, it’s even possible that some of the public land within a Maine Mountains Park could allow regulated timber harvesting.

But if the benefits of outdoor recreation are to be fully realized, there should be strict limits. The benefits would be for hunters, fishermen, hikers, campers, cross-country skiers, mountain bikers and bird watchers — but also for the people involved in the economy tending to them.

Some land in this proposed park is already publicly owned. The 36,000-acre Bigelow Preserve has become the nucleus for the acquisition by the state of thousands of acres to the north and south.

Much of this public land, as well as elsewhere in our proposed park and in Maine, was obtained as a result of the “public lots” court battle between the state and the big forest products companies. For a hundred years, the companies had used state land as their own. But in 1981 they were forced to give back 400,000 acres to the people of Maine.

The campaign that I led in the 1970s to preserve the 12-mile-long Bigelow Mountain Range has, I believe, political lessons for the creation of a Maine Mountains Park. Most important, it was a fully grassroots campaign. Five hundred unpaid citizens collected 50,000 signatures to put a bill on a statewide ballot in 1976 that blocked the construction of a gigantic ski resort, and that created the state preserve.

That fight and some other ballot-measure campaigns have shown that grassroots efforts can work. And if a Maine Mountains Park is going to be imposed on a big chunk of rural Maine, it would seem particularly advisable to conduct a grassroots campaign.

The opposite of grassroots environmental action is letting the elite decide. As in the Adirondacks, the rich have been important in preserving wonderful parts of the Maine environment — such as Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park — but often their efforts are restrained by divided loyalties and conflicts of interest. The rich, after all, own the corporations.

Thus, there’s an aversion by the organizations the rich finance to bold political action, especially grassroots action. There’s also a devotion to insider deals. This can be seen in the intense focus of many Maine conservation groups on forest land easements.

Tens of millions of dollars — often matched with public funds — have been raised to buy property easements from Maine’s industrial landowners. The easements are agreements to prevent or restrain residential and second-home development. They’ve been imposed on several million acres.

But they generally don’t restrict logging. The conservation groups have spent “a lot of money for no change in forest practices,” says Carter. Moreover, “Many of the working-forest easements don’t guarantee public access,” adds Jym St. Pierre, director of RESTORE: The North Woods, the organization that has long promoted a wildlands national park for northern Maine.

The groups obtaining the easements, such as the Nature Conservancy, “sing the praises of the working landscape even though, in many cases, the working landscape destroys or degrades the very natural values” the groups want to protect, as environmentalist author George Wuerthner expresses the paradox.

Environmental groups are always at risk of being in bed with the people they get their money from. The president of the Audubon Society at the time of the Bigelow battle was married to a man whose family corporation owned a chunk of Bigelow and had proposed building a small ski resort on the range as an alternative to the “Aspen of the East” that we were fighting against.

Today, the elite Conservation Law Foundation is supporting the CMP corridor. Its Maine director’s brother is senior vice president of CMP’s immediate parent company, Avangrid. The prosperous Nature Conservancy is also supporting the corridor, despite the enormous power line’s planned trajectory abutting the Conservancy’s 17,000-acre Leuthold Forest Preserve near Jackman.

This is not to say that everything such organizations do is bad. To the contrary, they have done what they intended: preserve much forest land from residential and camp development. The Appalachian Mountain Club’s 75,000 acres (soon, possibly, 100,000 acres) in the “100-mile wilderness” region has been turned into a venue of trails and lodges for hiking and cross-country skiing. But it will continue to be a “working forest.”

With bold, grassroots, “outsider” proposals, of course, you risk making enemies. Friends of Bigelow was opposed by the state’s business community, the governor, both parties in the Legislature, and most of Maine’s newspapers.

But we won by racking up our greatest vote margins in the working-class wards of Biddeford, Lewiston, Augusta and Waterville. When during the campaign I spoke to labor unions and fish and game clubs I made clear that we would be creating a park their members could enjoy. As with the growth of the Adirondack Park, the support of hunters and anglers was crucial.

We also were sensitive to how the local people around Bigelow earned their living, so in our bill we allowed state-regulated selective cutting in the preserve. I guess we weren’t sensitive to the needs of the wealthy residents of Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth, where the environmentalists reputedly lived, because we lost in the vote there.

As with the Bigelow bill, a Maine Mountains Park bill would likely have a rough reception in the Legislature, at least initially, because of how intently legislators pay attention to big-money lobbyists — though the forest industry is not as powerful in Augusta as it was. Thus, as with Bigelow, passing a law to create a Maine Mountains Park could be the goal of a people’s-initiative ballot measure.

But as with the Adirondack Park, eventually a constitutional amendment would be needed, since laws can be overturned or heavily modified by legislatures heeding the lobbyists, as the promoters of several recent direct-initiative Maine ballot measures found out.

In a campaign, many Mainers would understand that the name “Maine Mountains Park” would be a tourist draw. And that the Maine park’s equivalent of New York’s Forest Preserve wilderness would be a special draw.

Some Maine environmentalists are already looking at New York for inspiration. The High Peaks Alliance, a group promoting trails in our western mountains, has appropriated its name from the Adirondacks’ famous High Peaks.

But the greatest benefits to both Mainers and visitors would not be economic. Our society seems to demand an economic calculation behind every social or individual action. But it’s hard to discern the economic value of a sweaty hike up a tree-bowered mountain trail or a canoe outing on a tranquil lake at dusk, the loons calling.

In “The Adirondacks,” author Paul Schneider says that the argument that prevailed in the long struggle to preserve ever more of the mountains was not economic. Instead: “Wilderness had become ... a civil right.”

In the Bigelow battle for the most part we refused to fight on economic grounds. Our main argument was simple: this part of Maine should be saved because it’s beautiful.

Bigelow has been saved. And more places like it can be.