At the core of the debate are economics, ecological protection, and time-honored Maine traditions of recreational land use.
Park proponents tout the plan's ability to diversify the boom-and-bust local economyhard hit by cycles in the fortunes of the timber and paper industries.
"I think more and more people are recognizing the value of the idea we've put on the table," RESTORE's St. Pierre said. "That's taking advantage of the interest in ecotourism, the service sector jobs, small manufacturing, and moving away from smokestack industries. The trend is clear."
But others seek to protect the timber-related jobs that remain.
"It's important to remember that communities like Millinocket and Greenville are gateway communities whose economic livelihood depends on what's happening on the lands to the north and west of them," said Tim Glidden, an officer with Land for Maine's Future (LMF), a state government funding group for land conservation.
"Those communities are in very tough economic shape and the uncertainty there raises huge anxiety," Glidden said. "As they wrestle with the future it seems that some economics will be centered on fiber, timber, paper but not at the scale that it used to be. What's now being explored is what kind of tourism and recreational opportunities they are particularly well situated to provide. There are all sorts of incredible opportunities if the access to the land stays open."
While everyone wants access to the land to remain open, some Maine residents are concerned that it won't be under national park statusat least not for their favorite activities.
"We all want to be sure it's not fragmented and developed," said George Smith of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. "I do give the park proponents some credit for being one of the factors that has encouraged the state's leaders to secure our future in those woods."
Smith's organization, wary of federal involvement, has collected over 35,000 signatures against a proposed park study measure.
"It would ruin the very things we value by attracting and drawing more people to that part of the state," he said. "Few of us go to Acadia [National Park, in Maine] any more. It's just mobbed. Whatever became park would be land that we're currently enjoying."
"Public recreation-access in Maine is a really big deal," said Glidden, of the LMF. "In the West there's lots of federal land so people don't realize that in the Northeast the tradition is public recreational use of private land for hunting, snowmobiling, sporting camps, things like that."
Hunting is not generally permitted in national parks. Provisions do exist for hunting and snowmobile use within the proposed park/preserve plan, but sportsmen fear that they are nonspecific and will ultimately deny them access to much of the land that they have traditionally enjoyed.
Finding a Balance?
A different blueprint for management of the North Woods has surfaced in recent years, utilizing a blend of land purchases and conservation/recreation easements.
Large-scale projects of this type designate selected wilderness areas within larger tracts of working forestsall with guaranteed public access.
In 1998 the Nature Conservancy was involved with a 185,000-acre (75,000-hectare) deal along the St. John River and Canadian Border. "That was really our first foray into large-scale conservation in the northern forest," the Nature Conservancy's Abello said. "There we've set aside 45,000 acres (18,000 hectares) to be managed as eco-reserves, wilderness areas, and the balance is being managed for sustainable timber."
In January Maine Governor John Baldacci announced the completion of the West Branch Project, a U.S. $31.8 million deal that prevents development across 329,000 acres (133,000 hectares) of Maine's North Woods. The land in play had been owned for nearly a century by industry giant Great Northern Paper Co. Now, 47,000 acres (19,000 hectares) are owned by the state of Maine. The balance remains privately owned, but recreational access has been protected by easements acquired by the Forest Society of Maine.
Federal funds nearing $20 million were contributed by the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Legacy Program.
Similar projects in the sprawling North Woods have approached the million-acre (400,000-hectare) mark.
"Our goals are to try to balance economic and ecological concerns, and we think that the model for the northern forest, ecological reserves embedded within larger working forest landscape, achieves that," Abello said.
Glidden is also working to preserve the undeveloped Maine land base for both fiber production industries and natural resource-based tourism.
"Which will have more emphasis 50 to 100 years from now," he asked. "I don't know, but we believe that we need to have the land in place. You have to hold on to those kind of properties."
Park proponents, however, push for the increased and permanent ecological protection that national park status would offer the unique area of the North Woods. Many are wary of deals that leave land in private hands, which could rely on other persons or organizations to hold up their end of the bargain.
St. Pierre believes that balance is built into the park proposal. "It would improve the balance in the Maine woods much more than any other conservation idea being pursued in terms of public/private ownership, managed/wild lands, motorized/non-motorized recreation, and extractive/non extractive economic uses," he said.
Over 100,000 people have signed RESTORE's petitions encouraging Congress to authorize a public park feasibility study.
"The window on wilderness is closing fast in this country," Harvard University scholar and Pulitzer Prize winning author E.O. Wilson wrote for RESTORE. "What we secure now will be in a sense a final bequest to all future generations. That is why the Maine Woods National Park is so important."
"I don't know of any other place where we'd have the opportunity to create an Alaskan scale national park, in the 21st century, in the backyard of the East Coast megalopolis, without having to move out a single town or kick out a single person," said St. Pierre. "We can do it at wholesale pricing on the open market. It's a very, very unusual situation and the window of course won't stay open."
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