Maine Debates Over North Woods

2 December 2004

By Stentor Danielson

There is a movement afoot to create a new National Park in Maine. The north woods of that state are one of the largest stretches of wild land remaining in the eastern US, making the area a prime candidate for conservationists. The finances look right, too. The timber industry is struggling, so large tracts of land once destined for logging can be had relatively cheap. Conservation-minded investors -- most notably Roxanne Quimby, wealthy owner of the Burt's Bees Company -- have snapped up this land. Quimby has already turned her holdings into a sort of private national park, banning hunting and snowmobiling on her property.

Unfortunately for park advocates, the locals are not very keen on the idea. Northern Mainers fear that a North Woods National Park would attract an unwanted flood of tourists, much as Acadia National Park in the southern part of the state has. They worry that closing off the land as a park would undermine their way of life, interfering with hunting and closing off forever the prospect of a reinvigorated logging economy. And they resent non-locals -- stereotyped as high-class Bostonians -- coming in and telling them what they can and can't do with their land. The push for a North Woods National Park illustrates the problems with a conservation strategy that relies on closing off wilderness areas, rather than working with the people who live on the land.

The wilderness conservation ideal is susceptible to elitism. National Parks take land that's part of the landscape and life of a certain group of people, and make it the property of the nation. Of course, not everyone has the time and money to go enjoy the aesthetic amenities of a National Park. Urging the creation of a North Woods National Park is an implied insult to the stewardship of the people who already live in the area. It implies that outsiders know better than them how to take care of the woods.

The people of northern Maine are not necessarily environmental saints, the fabled noble savages living harmoniously and sustainably in nature. They may have much to learn about sustainable use of the forest. But they won't be willing to listen to a movement they see as threatening their identity and way of life.

Mainers and conservationists are natural allies. Take hunting for example. While shooting animals may not sound very environmentally friendly at first blush, and it certainly conflicts with the myth of pristine untouched wilderness, hunting depends on the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem. It is for this reason that hunters and angle rs nationwide have more often than not sided with environmentalists in protecting our nation's lands and waters. What's more, hunting relies on a form of common property -- every hunter can't own a piece of land that supports an independent population of his or her prey. Common property lies at the heart of the conservationist strategy.

Likewise, both sides share a common enemy in the volatile timber industry. It's the global market for wood, and the companies that supply it, that are the biggest threat to the north woods, -- not the actions of local residents. Those residents have also suffered from overdependence on one industry, which is now slumping. Unfortunately, Mainers' identity is linked to the timber industry, and they rally around it when it's threatened by outsiders. Conservationists need to make it clear that they recognize logging as a legitimate way to earn a living, and that their plan (of which establishing a National Park is only a part) will sustain the resource ba se of logging in the long run while helping to diversify the region's economy.

With these ideological congruencies, conservationists and Mainers ought to be able to work together to design a plan for the north woods that makes progress toward both of their goals. This cooperation would also allow the exchange of ideas, so that Mainers learn conservationists' ecological science while conservationists benefit from Mainers' on-the-ground experience with life in the woods.

This is not to say that creating a National Park is necessarily wrong. Such conservation areas do serve an important purpose in protecting our environment. The key, though, is not to simply slap down borders. A park must be integrated into its social and ecological surroundings. That can only be done by working with the people who already live there, not by grabbing the land away from them.

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