Big stir over big plan for Maine forest

Development vs. nature arguments erupt in the North Woods as investors propose a half-million-acre development.

For as long as anyone can remember, paper companies have owned and managed this quilt of forest land, adorned with lakes and rivers, known as Maine's North Woods. The arrangement was simple: The companies logged and pulped, while residents roamed, fished, and hunted throughout the backcountry.

Not everyone liked the tree-cutting. But most are even less thrilled with the proposed new use for the land - the biggest development project in the state's history.

Developers want to rezone nearly half a million acres in the Moosehead Lake region, which would include 975 residential lots, two resorts, a marina, and a golf course.

Supporters say the development would boost jobs - and the region's dwindling population. Critics argue the move would squeeze the largest undeveloped land east of the Rockies.

But they do agree on this: the North Woods, a region celebrated by writer Henry David Thoreau throughout the 19th century, will never be the same. "There is a profound sense of grief that change is part of life," says Karin Tilberg, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation.

On the old logging roads that traverse much of this landscape, visitors are now more likely to see a moose than another vehicle.

"This is God's country," says Joe Munster, a hunting and fishing guide, looking at the trees that poke out from tiny islands near the upper Moose River. "Why would anyone want to ruin this?"

On a recent day, Mr. Munster, who grew up hunting and swimming in pristine lakes, hiked past the railroad tracks down to the Moose River and jumped in - a freedom, he says, that could be at stake. Landowner rights need to be respected and some degree of development is inevitable, he adds, but not if it ruins the landscape and squeezes out long-term residents.

The backdrop for the plan is an economy in need of help. Countless jobs were lost in the paper industry as it began to mechanize. Many communities have been seeing a gradual decline in population. The Plum Creek Development could be a solution, many residents hold. The plan could generate 800 jobs and $41.5 million in personal income per year, according to a report commissioned by the company.

"Either you grow or you die," says Linda Griffin, who voiced her support for the proposal at a meeting in Jackman led by Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission. She says development could help provide the critical mass the region needs. "I don't want this town to shrivel up."

Support throughout the state is growing, says Jim Lehner, Plum Creek's general manager for the Northeast. "There are definitely more people coming on board as they learn more about [the plan]," he says, even though at the last of four such meetings held throughout the state last month, a company car had a slashed tire and the words "Leave Maine" scratched onto the side.

Many residents lament that Maine is losing its pristine character and becoming too much like other places. They say new development will strain services and push prices up, bringing in wealthy residents who gate up their properties and care little for Maine's heritage.

Even as Plum Creek promises to develop only 2 percent of its land in Maine - leaving the rest to conservation and working forest - residents fear that other developers view the development as a litmus test.

Environmentalists also worry about the effects Plum Creek and other developments might have on the region. As an alternative, they propose to turn 3.2 million acres of the North Woods into a national park bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined.

Landowners "are no longer valuing forest land for harvesting, but as a commodity," says Jym St. Pierre, the Maine director of Restore: The North Woods, which is leading the national-park effort. "It's just real estate to be carved up and served."

He says rows of mailboxes set up around recent development in the North Woods symbolize the sprawl to come if the land is not protected. "It's not wild lands anymore, it's the suburbs."

At the Jackman meeting attended by area residents, Richard Petrin angrily held up a plastic bag of black muck that he says he scooped up from the shores of a local lake, where over 100 new lots are proposed. Years ago, that sample would have been white sand, he says. But pressures on the sewage system and other infrastructure has taken a toll.

"It's becoming Boston," says Mr. Petrin.

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