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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

North Woods

Air Date: Week of

The North Woods of Maine are changing hands rapidly -- and people are trying to make sure they don’t change into condominiums. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on one family’s attempt to sell development rights on three-quarters of a million acres of its property.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The North Woods of Maine are at a crossroads. This vast stretch of forest is changing hands at an increasingly rapid rate; and development, even in this remote corner of the world, is on the rise. People worried about the future of the woods are exploring ways of preserving its special character. One approach includes plans to prevent development on a million and a half acres. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum has our story on one family's decision to try to protect their land, along with their family fortune.

(Water runs)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It smells of baked potatoes at the Bradford Camps, a hunting lodge on a lake in northern Maine. It's just about dinnertime. Rick Young is waiting in a corner, telling me stories about these North Woods.

YOUNG: I've had, while I've been hunting, a chickadee land on my gun barrel and look at me. I mean, why did that happen?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Rick grew up on the edge of this forest and knows its ways better than most. But still, sometimes, it overwhelms him.

YOUNG: I'm riding past Mt. Katahdin since September. The sun is setting. The colors are peak, right? And I look up towards Mt. Katahdin, and it's like something you just never could imagine. The sun just lit it like someone pulled a switch. And I'm wondering, you know, why am I seeing that, or why is that like that at this moment? And you know, I experience something. I've never seen it since. Just something that happened --foof -- and it was like Michelangelo couldn't have reproduced it. (Laughs)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Like his grandfather, Rick is a guide. He teaches people how to hunt, fish, and hike these woods. The forest didn't always reveal itself to him, not when he began.

YOUNG: I mean, when I first spent this time in the woods, I was just out there for the kill or for the hunt. Now I appreciate the nature and what comes with walking through the woods. It's spiritual to me, you know. I'd cry if it was ever changed.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But change is coming. Everyone is talking about the future of these woods. They want to sell it, buy it, cut it. And they all say they want to protect it. They just don't agree how, or from what.

(Plane engine)

SCHLEY: Right now, we're probably sixty, seventy miles from the nearest public road to the east. And as you go to the west, there's nothing from here all the way to the Canadian border.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Steve Schley is giving me the high view of his family's land in northern Maine. He's a member of the Pingree family. The Pingrees own about a million acres of woods up here, about a tenth of the vast Forest stretched out below us. Only lakes and the pale dirt logging roads break the trees.

SCHLEY: If you look straight down, we're flying over a beautifully, partially-cut hardwood stand.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Steve's proud of the way his family's maintained a healthy working forest in the North Woods for 160 years. But, he says, that livelihood is under attack by people who want to put so many restrictions on what he can do with his land, they'd put him out of business.

SCHLEY: They hear the rhetoric about supposed over-cutting in the Maine forest. And I think that they question whether or not there are actually any trees left. They don't get up here to see it. I just don't think they understand or appreciate how you can harvest within a forest and still have lots of wood left.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Steve says the real threat to the woods is something more permanent to logging. He points to the horizon.

SCHLEY: There's a great big lake coming up to our left with beautiful hills surrounding it. There is incredible demand for second home development in areas like this. And even off of the lakes there, we've got lots of people who look for that beautiful hunting camp kind of a spot that's next to a stream, that can serve as their source of clean and fresh water.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: According to the state agency that issues building permits for this area, new homes are going up at a slow but steady pace, about 300 units per year. There are other numbers that get tossed around, too. Almost a quarter of the woods has changed hands in the last two years. Most of those acres are being kept in timber, but others have already been resold to developers. And landowners with forty acres or more don't need state permission to subdivide, which means more houses, more infrastructure. People talk of communities popping up in the middle of nowhere, practically overnight. Steve Schley says the waiting list for a piece of Pingree land has 200 names on it. Given the prices people are willing to pay and high estate taxes, he says the Pingrees are under pressure to sell.

SCHLEY: There has to be long-term recognition of the development value out here. And there's one of two ways to do it. You can either do it in an incredibly environmentally-sound way, or you can actually come out here and do the development. Long-term, one of the two has got to occur.

(Truck over dirt road)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: There is a deal brewing to keep Pingree land from turning into condos and coffee shops. As I continue my tour in a truck, bumping along dirt roads with no signs, Keith Ross explains the idea.

ROSS: When you own a piece of property, you have the right to do all kinds of things with that land. You can farm it. You can harvest timber on it. You can convert it into houses. Conservation easement is a separation of some of those rights to a qualified organization, such as the New England Forestry Foundation.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Ross is Vice President of the New England Forestry Foundation. He's trying to raise $31 million to pay the Pingrees for the development rights to their land. In return, the Pingrees can keep logging their forest, as long as they abide by certain restrictions.

ROSS: It's basically no paving, no mining, no dumping, no building.

(Truck door shuts)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's called a conservation easement.

ROSS: What we're trying to do with this easement is keep the forest the way it is. You know, keep it as a working forest in perpetuity. I know it's kind of a difficult concept for some people to grasp onto, because they would think there should be some dramatic change. But you know, in the life of a forest, the ability to get to 120-year-old trees is a dramatic change.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Keith Ross has been working in the land preservation movement for more than fifteen years. He says the Pingree easement is bringing landowners from across the country to his door, asking how they can work out similar transactions on their land. He calls the Pingree deal a model alliance with a family that has a history of good stewardship. And, he says, it's a lot cheaper than buying property outright.

ROSS: For a long time conservation groups, we band together and rush out to try to protect some piece of land that's threatened for development. You take that money and you give it to somebody and you protect that piece of land, they just take the money and go destroy another piece of land. So you're sort of following yourself around all the time.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: By selling their development rights, the Pingrees lower the value of their land, and in turn lower the family's taxes. But even with the perks, it took Steve a while to accept the idea of restricting his family's primary asset forever.

SCHLEY: Most easements that I've ever seen before have been highly-prescriptive, and didn't allow the flexibility that's necessary to conduct the management that is necessary on such highly-variable acreage.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Steve knows there are skeptics who say Pingrees have done little building on their land over the years, and they question whether this land really needs protection from development. But Steve says the future is uncertain.

SCHLEY: I'm beginning the education of our seventh generation of owners. And last summer, I started that with our five-to-twelve-year-olds, bringing them in the woods, trying to educate them in terms of what we're trying to accomplish. There's no guarantee that they're going to feel the same way in the future, that current generations feel today. So, I think that those who suggest nothing would ever change here are being awful short-sighted.

(Motors, whirring)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In Township 6, Range 15, there is an operation underway. John McNulty, a forester for the Pingrees timber company, explains the procedure.

McNULTY: To turn a thousand-pound disk of steel, it's like a giant skillsaw, to be able to sever a tree in less than a second is pretty impressive. And that same machine can cut four trees like that, one, two, three, four, accumulate them in a bunch, and lay them all down at once.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It sounds a little harsh, but John tells prospective donors to the Pingree easement that these giant machines can make logging easier on the forest than using tractors, or even horses. Fewer trails need to be cleared. There's less dragging on the ground and less damage to surrounding trees. John says this forest will grow forever if it's cut right. In the North Woods, he says, a spruce will grow in your pocket.

(Truck over dirt)

McNULTY: Now, I want you to pay attention here. These are very nice stands, all the way down through here.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: On the way to tour a stand of pines, I ask John what he thinks about this whole conservation easement idea. John says it's almost a guarantee that his livelihood and his way of life will continue. As long as developers are kept at a distance.

McNULTY: You take that threat away and the public, you know, it's like once this thing goes through, I wouldn't doubt you could hear a public sigh of relief. That, ah there, you know, there are 750,000 acres we don't have to worry about any more.

(A bird chirps)

ADAMS: I think in 100 years, there would be a lot of people wishing that they'd found some other way to preserve the land without the finality of fracturing the titles forever.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Her bird may sound cheerful, but Mary Adams isn't sighing or relieved. Logging rights here, development rights there, it's anathema to her life's mission. Mary champions property rights, and she says deals like the Pingrees take control of the land away from the people who own it. For future generations, Mary says this could mean disaster.

ADAMS: If they're restricted in such a way that they can't do what they need to do in order to hang onto it, to maintain it, then it can't be sold for what its potential would be. Because its potential is gone. And so, what you would have to do is either sell out to an environmental group or sell out to the government. In other words, sooner or later we're going to become peasants on the land.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Mary knows some houses are being built, but she says development pressure on most of the Pingree's land and most of the North Woods, for that matter, is about as happening an event as watching molasses roll down a hill. And the idea that environmentalists have talked out-of-staters into giving money to one of Maine's biggest landowners? Mary laughs.

ADAMS: I get kind of a kick out of watching this happen, if you want to know the truth.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Northern Mainers like Mary have designed a little campaign and poster of their own.

(Paper crinkles)

ADAMS: It says "Let's help Maine restore Boston to its original state," and it shows a wrecking ball taking down (laughs) -- taking down the John Hancock building and the other skyscrapers. It's just hilarious, to us anyway. I don't know if it would amuse anybody down in Boston. What do you think?

ST. PIERRE: I think more than anything, what people really want these days is wilderness.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Maine native Jym St. Pierre works for the conservation group Restore the North Woods. He believes the woods do need saving. But conservation easements, he says, aren't the answer. They may prevent development, but they don't stop what he says is the forest's biggest threat: logging.

ST. PIERRE: What we're doing with a lot of the easement deals that are happening in Maine today is locking in working forests and locking out wilderness.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: St. Pierre says people should think twice about investing in easements. Sure, the Pingree deal covers a huge amount of land, but, he says, it doesn't guarantee sustainable forestry, and it doesn't guarantee public access. Those concerns are shared by other conservationists who worry that the broad and unrestrictive Pingree deal may set a bad precedent. Others are taking another tack. They buy land outright, put restrictions on it first, then sell it as a sustainable working forest to keep the local economy alive. Jym St. Pierre wants to go one step further and create a Maine Woods National Park. The park would be free from logging and the public would be welcome forever.

ST. PIERRE: People don't even, literally, don't even know who the landowners are, in some cases now, of hundreds of thousands of acres. They don't have control over their own future. And the lands that historically they've had a chance to go hunting on, canoeing and camping and hiking. And if one of the big landowners tomorrow decides to shut off public access, you know, we could lose traditional access to hundreds of thousands or even millions of acres at the stroke of a pen.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: So, the promise to continue public access Pingree land requires a bit of good faith. And if the family sells, the public must trust the new owner to respect the tradition. Everyone talks about the public. Jym St. Pierre says the public wants wilderness. Mary Adams says it wants to be left alone. The Pingrees say their woods provide the public with recreational opportunities. Their mills provide jobs. Everyone says it's the people, ultimately, they're trying to protect or please or pacify. People like the Corrigans.

CORRIGAN: Vanishing for days, my father would return unshaven, the odor of evergreens and wood smoke on his clothes. His eyes...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Poet Paul Corrigan grew up in, Maine. The town of Millinocket grew up around Great Northern, the paper company whose mill created this town at the turn of the century. Paul paid for college working summers at the mill. His family spent those summers living at this camp near town, on land leased from the company, using company wood for fuel, hunting on company property.

CORRIGAN: And though we pictured him crouched beside his fire on the shore of some lake or pond with a name as long as your arm, we couldn't imagine the man who, days later, would stroll into the yard, freshened and whole again, bringing us fish and kisses.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Like a lot of folks up here, Paul doesn't understand all the details about conservation easements. But he thinks they sound like a good idea.

CORRIGAN: Because it's going to enable this country to remain pretty much the way it has been, in terms of open spaces without development, and also the access issue.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's how it works up here, a kind of symbiosis between private owners and the public. Timber companies build roads for their trucks, which hunters and hikers use to get to the woods. Snowmobilers follow the old logging trails, and skiers follow the snowmobilers' path. Everybody gets something. But things are changing. Many of the new landowners in the woods are not the old Yankee families, but companies with no background in forestry, looking for the best return on their investment.

(A chair scrapes)

CORRIGAN, SR.: I don't know, don't know how things should go.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Paul's father, Paul Corrigan, Sr., throws a log on the fire and tells me about a time when he could go anywhere and do anything in the North Woods. Build a fire, shoot a gun, walk straight to the Canadian border. Lately, he's seen landowners put up gates and charge money to use their land. He's seen people grow angry. Conservation easements might keep development out, but Paul Sr. says the future of this place will depend on subtler agreements, more personal and less predictable.

CORRIGAN, SR.: There's an old saying that those who have the most, more is expected. And that doesn't mean making more money. That means be considerate of other people. And I think if they could go that way, that would be fine. But I don't know. It's pretty hard for me to believe that that would ever happen. Nevertheless, that's the way I might think about it. Those that have the most, more is expected.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Mr. Corrigan is talking about the old landowners, the Pingrees, the Hubers, the Dunns. And the new investors, too. What are their plans for their property? Altogether, almost one-and-a-half million acres will be development-free if current easements go through. But only on some of that land will access be guaranteed.

CORRIGAN: (Reading Thoreau) The next house was Fisk's, ten miles from the point at the mouth of the east branch, opposite to the island Nicatow , or the Forks, the last of the Indian islands...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Henry David Thoreau first visited the Maine woods in the 1840s. Back then, you had to travel for days, even weeks, by river, to reach the inner forest. The few settlers opened their log huts to those who came through. Thoreau made sure to record their names.

CORRIGAN: (Reading Thoreau) Such information is of no little consequence who may have occasion to travel this way.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It was in those same years in the same forest Thoreau called "stern and savage" that David Pingree began buying his land. Maybe it hasn't changed that much since then. The fate of the North Woods, despite new rules and regulations, might still depend on good stewardship and faith between neighbors. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.



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