A Park that Begs Creating
If you climb to the summit of Borestone Mountain in northern Maine and scan the northern horizon, what you see is a vast, sweeping expanse of forest and mountains, punctuated by lakes and rivers. What you don’t see are cities, highways, smokestacks, or anything at all that can be construed as a town or village.
There is no place else outside of Alaska where so much land is essentially undeveloped, though not entirely untouched, and some want to keep it that way by creating a 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park.
The analogy to Alaska is quite accurate, as much of the vegetation and wildlife in this region is remarkably similar to the 49th state. Forests of paper birch, aspen, and spruce, along with hardwoods like sugar maples, cover the land. Moose, black bear, lynx, and marten roam the woodlands. Species like caribou and wolves were also once found here, and some hope can be restored in the future.
According to some estimates there is a 10-million-acre core area in northern Maine without a single town or other permanent outpost of civilization. To put that into perspective, that is an area three times the size of the state of Connecticut. Even in the most remote parts of the West, you would be hard pressed to find any place equally devoid of human habitation. For decades nearly all of this land was owned by timber companies. The land is not untouched, as much of it has been logged and graded for roads. But trees grow back quickly here, and the evidence of logging disappears within decades.
Unlike in the western United States where nearly all national parks have been carved from existing federal lands, nearly all public lands in the eastern US had to be bought. Treasured landscapes like Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, Acadia National Park on the Maine Coast, or even national forests like New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest or George Washington National Forest in Virginia were all acquired with public funds or through donation by private philanthropy.
In the 1990s, as the logging industry slowed down, land ownership in the Maine Woods began to change rapidly. Responding to these new realities, RESTORE: The North Woods, a conservation group based in Maine, created a legislative proposal for a 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. The proposal includes the “Hundred Mile Wilderness” section of the Appalachian Trail, the Gulf Hagas old growth forests, and Moosehead Lake – the largest freshwater lake wholly in one state east of the Mississippi that is the headwaters of some of Maine’s most famous and iconic rivers including the Allagash, the West Branch of the Penobscot, and the St. Johns.
The biggest attribute of Maine Woods is just sheer space. A Maine Woods National Park could protect a landscape large enough to support viable populations of wide-ranging predators like the wolf and restore habitat for endangered wildlife like the Atlantic salmon and lynx. Groups as diverse as the Appalachian Mountain Club, The Nature Conservancy, and Northeast Wilderness Trust, as well as the state of Maine, have acquired lands or conservation easements on much of the landscape within the proposed park.
The most significant acquisitions have been purchased by philanthropist Roxanne Quimby, best known for creating Burt’s Bee products, who began to actively acquire lands within the Maine Woods. At present she has amassed approximately 87,000 acres adjacent to the existing 200,000-acre Baxter State Park that she is generously prepared to donate for a national park or monument, with plans to acquire another 70,000 or so for a national recreation area or park preserve.
Similar donations by other philanthropists have led to the creation of such American icons as Grand Teton National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and others.
But both RESTORE and Quimby have run into local opposition to any federal park designation in the region. Maine’s Congressional delegation remains either opposed or largely ambivalent to the park idea. However, a majority of Mainers as a whole do support a new national park in the Maine Woods, though there’s some debate about how large the park area should be. At present, a Maine Woods National Park utilizing the lands offered by Quimby is on a short list of places that President Barack Obama may designate as new national monuments.
Due to an extraordinary set of circumstances – the changing timber industry, land sales, and thus far limited development – the Maine Woods presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a truly internationally significant, landscape-scale ecological reserve in the Maine Woods that may not come again.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and author who has published 38 books including many dealing with national parks.