The Maine North Woods
Although many people are involved in the fight to establish MWNP, Roxanne Quimby’s life could make her a character worth of being featured in the Ken Burns series. In 1975, Fresh out of art school in San Francisco, she and George traveled to Maine with just $3000 that they used to buy 30 acres of woods. They built a cabin where they lived without electricity, running water, or a car (their WV bus had died). Twins were born, however George left after a few years. In 1984, Roxanne bought honey from a beekeeper named Burt Shavitz. They eventually became partners. Looking to use Burt’s stockpile of wax, she began to create products, such as lip balm. In 2007, Burt’s Bees, the leading natural personal-care brand, was sold for nearly a billion dollars. In the while Roxanne had begun to buy vast expenses of Maine land, with the goal to preserve the landscape forever by establishing a Park, much like John D Rockefeller Jr did for the Grand Tetons and Acadia, and Percival Baxter for Baxter State Park. More of the captivating story can be found in a Yankee Magazine article, The Most Controversial Woman in Maine.
As I was traveling towards the East, I spent the first day in Greenville and around Moosehead Lake. On the second day, I explored the area between Greenville and Millinocket around the Golden Road. The third day was spent in Baxter State Park. Because Katahdin was in the clouds, I hiked a secondary summit that was initially under the clouds. The next day, I visited the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, where I managed to locate the two locomotives curiously stuck in the middle of a remote area at the end of an unmaintained and unmarked trail (this might be the subject of another posting). On the fifth day, I explored the vast area North and East of Baxter State Park, eventually exiting the North Woods at the town of Ashland.
What struck me first about the proposed area for MWNP was the sheer size, 3.2 million acre, larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. I spent five days in the area and had barely began to scratch the surface. It is criss-crossed by a very extensive network of forestry roads, unpaved but well-maintained and easily passable by car. The Delorme Atlas is necessary to navigate them, yet even with it it is still easy to get confused, as signs are rare. Besides those roads, development is limited to remote camps and private lodges. I saw relatively frequent traffic, maybe one truck (nobody there besides me drove a car) every fifteen minutes, yet the area feels remote. Such a large, relatively undeveloped block of forest is certainly unique in the eastern US.
Within the area, there is a mix of mountains (the most spectacular of which is Katahdin, already protected within Baxter State Park), lakes (including Moosehead, largest in Maine), wild rivers (including the Allagash, protected as a Wilderness Waterway), and ponds. This mix makes the terrain more varied than some other Eastern Parks. Although I am no expert, the forest itself, a mix of evergreens and northern hardwoods, appeared to me not to include old growth. On the other hand, while I encountered many logging trucks, the harvested zones were small in size, unlike the large clearcut areas of, for instance, the Olympic Peninsula. The area is certainly beautiful, although like in many eastern places there are not a lot of spectacular views, as the forest obscures them below the timberline. In parks such as Acadia, Shenandoah or the Great Smoky Mountains, the road takes you above timberline (or almost), but in the Maine North Woods, a long hike is necessary.
Although most of the land is private, the areas that I visited (managed by North Maine Woods Inc) were opened to the public much like a publicly-owned park, with fees charged at “checkpoints” comparable to the parks entrance stations. There was a registration procedure more strict than in the public parks I knew. You had to obtain an individual permit under your name and check in and out. However Baxter State Park operated also the same way. This combination of private ownership and public access with relatively liberal regulations happened at a scale I hadn’t seen before. Most recreational activities were authorized, included hunting. As I arrived at the height of the hunting season, I saw more moose than I ever saw before, although all dead.
With all those characteristics, I could understand the reluctance towards a National Park. However, the problem is that the current situation is hardly stable. Economic globalization has made local logging uncompetitive. With land ownership shifting from timber companies to real estate developers, the care of the land and access could rapidly change for the worse. The Maine North Woods are at a cross roads. Although it should eventually be for the public to decide, the option of a Park should at least be given a serious consideration, in the form of a feasibility study.