DICK FOLSOM points his deHavilland Beaver floatplane into a headwind blowing from the northeast, eases down the throttle, and takes off from the choppy waters of Moosehead Lake. As the plane ascends to 1,900 feet, the land takes on the dark and arrowy shapes of the deep woods. Twenty years ago the only way a woodsman could get to Maine's back country was to hike in over many miles of rugged trails or fly in via floatplane. Most of Maine's north woods is devoid of development, lacking towns or even telephone lines. But man's imprint is everywhere.
``This isn't a wilderness anymore,'' shouts Folsom over the roar of the Beaver's engine. ``Only people from New Jersey still think it's so.''
Every lake below is edged by a logging road. Great swaths of woodland, barren and brown, have been denuded by the chain saws. As the plane nears Chesuncook Lake, hundreds of acres of treeless, ``clear cut'' parcels seem to outnumber the wooded areas.
Ever since lumberjacks first took to Maine's forest more than a century ago, much of the woods has been managed like an agricultural crop. Because the forest remained largely inaccessible to all but loggers and sportsmen who could afford to fly to remote regions, it retained the aura described by Thoreau in his treks through northern Maine.
Today, many argue that increased clear-cutting of large areas, combined with the recent construction of a vast private road network, is robbing the forest of its wild character.
``Maine's wilderness is largely a perception,'' says Paul Frederic, executive director of the Land Use Regulation Commission. ``The north woods is really a working woodlot rather than a wilderness.''
Nearly 86 percent of Maine's total area is considered a ``commercial forest,'' that is, wooded land that can be cut and marketed as various forest products. Eight million of Maine's 20 million acres are owned by the timber industry. Last year loggers harvested 301,277 acres of forest, almost half by clear-cutting techniques, according to the Maine Forest Service.
Dan Corcoran, a land-use manager with the Great Northern Paper Company, predicts that clear-cutting practices will continue into the next decade, because most of Maine's spruce and fir trees have reached maturity at the same time.
``We're dealing with a single age forest ranging from 60 to 90 years,'' said Corcoran. ``That leaves us with few harvesting options other than clear-cutting.''
Once a younger forest establishes itself, the logging companies will develop a plan for partial cutting that will vary the age of the forest and cancel the need for vast clear-cuts.
Meanwhile, a decade-long epidemic of spruce budworms has accelerated the pace of clear-cutting. Great tracts of spruce and fir are logged quickly to salvage the trees before they are destroyed.
Construction by paper companies of what is thought to be the nation's largest private road network has led to further changes in Maine's landscape.
Maine's interior is laced with more than 10,000 miles of logging roads. Great Northern alone maintains a 3,000-mile network of private roads, and each year builds an average of 100 miles of new roads as it abandons old ones that are no longer needed. The roads are built to accommodate rigs that can haul up to 450,000 pounds of logs.
Rivers had been the cheapest way to transport saw logs and pulpwood to the mills, but tough environmental laws helped put an end to the great river drives. By 1976 the paper companies had shifted to a land-based transportation system. Some say that halting the drives stopped polluting the rivers, only to start polluting the woods with people.
The gravel highways opened thousands of square miles of forest to an increasing number of fishermen, hunters, canoeists, and campers. Great Northern reports that in 1976, about 67,000 vehicles registered at its checkpoints. By 1985 that figure had more than doubled.
``The paper companies never foresaw the extent to which the public would take to these [private] roads,'' said Hank Magnuson, executive director of the Paper Industry Information Office.
Tom Shoener, a spokesman for Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, says the growing number of fishermen who drive almost to the banks of formerly remote trout ponds ``clearly hurts'' the fish population in many ponds.
Jerry Bley of the Natural Resources Council, a statewide environmental advocacy group, adds that Maine's extensive private road network and the resulting increase in traffic ``has been a major factor in taking the wilderness out of the woods.''
Even so, sportsmen welcome the roads and the accompanying accessibility to the north woods.
``There used to be a lot less wilderness available for the average guy,'' says Ron Masure, a registered Maine guide. ``These roads have created a greater opportunity for more people to enjoy a wilderness-type area.''
Many forestry experts contend that most of Maine's ``wilderness'' vanished by the end of the 19th century, when lumberjacks sawed their way from the coast to the Canadian border. Today only 6,800 acres of forest have never been cut, according to Mason Morfit, executive director of the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
The largest tract of virgin forest in Maine consists of 3,800 acres surrounding Big Reed Pond, about 20 miles north of Baxter State Park. Last year the Nature Conservancy purchased Big Reed forest to permanently protect it and to gauge the effects of acid rain, insect outbreaks, the frequency of wildfire, and long-term environmental changes.
Though most of Maine's natural forest stands are gone, both the state and the timber industry are taking steps to ensure that some of the woods remain wild.
The Great Northern Paper Company has designated 70,000 acres of forest in the Debsconeag ponds and St. John River regions as ``remote recreation'' areas. Great Northern will continue to log and truck timber from the two tracts, but outdoorsmen wishing to explore the more than 30 lakes and ponds in these wild lands must do so by foot.
The state is conducting a comprehensive management strategy affecting 300 lakes and ponds in the 10 million-acre Unorganized Territories, where no local form of government exists. Development and vehicular access will be banned on 6 percent of the total shoreline in these areas, although timber harvesting may continue.
Maine voters decided last year to allow the state to approve $35 million in bonds to buy more public lands. Some of the state's purchases will ensure continued public access to scenic spots, while others will be designated as special wilderness areas, with varying access restrictions and development restrictions.
But for those who remember the years before a seemingly pristine forest was beset with spruce budworms, vast clear-cuts, and thousands of miles of roads, the Maine woods have been changed forever.
``Every old guy thinks it was better in his day,'' says Dick Folsom, who has traced nearly every one of northern Maine's rivers, mountains, and hollows during 41 years as a bush pilot. ``But when I want wilderness, I fly to Labrador.''