My Two Minds on the Maine Woods National Monument

Yes? I wasn't sure.

Yes? I wasn’t sure.

A week ago I attended the North Woods National Monument proposal forum in Orono, bringing no clear opinion with me and like many people looking for some clarity on the issue. Listening to the testimonials during the evening I surprised myself with realization that I am of two minds on the proposal, both of them in favor of the Monument.

To my first mind, the one that wasn’t sure how to feel about the proposal, the strongest argument I heard at the forum was stated clearly by Matt Polstein of the New England Outdoor Center, and was echoed several times in the evening. The idea is that the economy of the Katahdin region needs diversity, and a diversified economy is the key to the future. That pricked up my ecologist ears, as we find this to be true in ecology as well—the most resilient ecosystems, those most able to weather change, are the ones that are the most diverse. When the entire ecosystem relies on a single food chain it is exceedingly vulnerable. Trouble with one link in that chain spells trouble for the whole system. When the system relies on a web of connections rather than a simple chain, trouble with one member doesn’t trigger a catastrophe in the whole. The economy in the North Woods has been primarily a food chain, or in the agricultural metaphor, a monoculture, with forest products, primarily pulp wood to feed the paper industry. Diversifying economic opportunity in the form of increased recreational and ecotourism markets can only strengthen and deepen the area’s economic bench, while enabling the remaining forest products industries (pellets and other biomass, saw logs etc) to maintain or even gain ground. Those that tout this monument proposal as the savior to the region may be overstating the case (Sean Faircloth channeling TR comes to mind), but I think that as a piece of the economic mosaic of the region, one of particularly prominent positioning on the national consciousness, this proposal stands to bring increased tourism to an area ripe with under appreciated natural beauty.

I am not, in the words of one proposal opponent, a “penthouse environmentalist”. I am the proud daughter of a Papermaker (yes, with a capital P). My father put in 22 years at the Bucksport mill, first under St. Regis and then under Champion. I owe my education and quality of life to the forest products industry, and I don’t take its demise lightly. Every time I drive by the empty parking lot and slowly crumbling mill in Bucksport my heart cries out. My father took pride in making the paper for Time magazine and National Geographic and loved the men (and it was mostly men) he worked with as a brotherhood. He didn’t live long enough to witness the collapse of the paper industry in Maine, and my sister and I often wonder what he would have thought watching its terrifying downward spiral. Maine has long been a natural resource based economy, from the fisheries that first drew Europeans here, to the rivers that powered the textile industry, to the forest products that fuels ship building, lumber and ultimately the paper industry. Here in the second decade of the 21st century, we have to remember the past and realize that the term “forest products” has meant more than simply pulp wood, biomass and wood pellets and even saw logs for over 150 years. People have been coming to the North Woods to hunt and camp and commune with nature since the 1800’s. “Forest products” include aesthetics and experiences. We take it for granted that the world is beautiful, lots of people in this country and the world don’t have that luxury. For them experiencing the peace of the North Woods is as valuable as any piece of paper or pulp log.

Dad, in Redwood National Park.

Dad, in Redwood National Park.

Of that second mind, I have to admit I am a card carrying tree hugging dirt worshipper (my Papermaker father taught me that too). If you have ever read this blog in the past, you know that I find contact with the natural world restorative, and so with this mind, conserving more beautiful country in the north woods of Maine is a no brainer. Whether you are for, against or uncertain about this proposal, if you live in (most parts of) Maine it is likely that a big reason why is access to nature, being able to look out your window and see nothing but trees. We sacrifice other opportunities just so we can live here. Alexandra Conover Bennett said it best when in her comments at the forum she said “We have wild lands, we have something the world needs”.

What I have come to understand is that those natural experiences aren’t just for the rural people, the white middle class, or most importantly the wealthy who can afford to buy their own piece of paradise. Nor are they only for the able bodied who can trek deep into the wilderness (years spent with a family member suffering increasing degenerative disability has opened my eyes to the need for accessibility). We all need access to these experiences. Living on the coast of Maine has taught me what one speaker at the forum so perfectly summed up, keeping land in private ownership and management is no guarantee that it will remain open to the public. In fact as the land in the North Woods has changed hands from paper companies to venture capitalists and real estate speculators, and is chopped up into kingdom lots, we should be prepared for less access. Take it from me, I live on the coast. And I get it, the locals are nervous about an influx of people. But as land ownership changes rapidly in the North Woods, the playing field is shifting. To have any chance of public access the strategy can’t be limited to a reliance on the good graces of private landowners. Access focused institutions are needed (and in fact are already in place, from the state park system, to the Baxter State Park Authority, to the Nature Conservancy, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the North Maine Woods Inc to name a few). The National Park Service would simply join the list, and bring with it high visibility to an area where many wild and working lands are accessible but under utilized.

The people speaking in support of the proposal offered a vision of the future that includes an increase in economic opportunity that spins off of land preservation, brought by increased visitation to the area. The people speaking against the proposal didn’t really offer any vision at all, excepting keeping things they way they are, while simultaneously acknowledging the desperate need for something different than the status quo. The fear of change is palpable, but the reality is that the change we feared the most is already upon us, one look at the mill in Bucksport coming apart piece by piece, one look at the headlines of yet another mill closing shows us that. What is left to us now is to look around and see what we have to work with and try to understand what we can offer the world now, if it isn’t paper. I am sure there are things I don’t understand that have perpetuated the virulent anti federal feelings that come across loud and clear at these hearings. I wish I did understand them, so I could better understand the adamant positions being taken and the lines in the sand being drawn (but please don’t talk to me about UN Agenda 21, that can’t be the only reason for anti federalist sentiment). I have to say the moment that blew my mind the most was when George Smith, former leader of the Sportsmans Alliance of Maine (SAM) got up and spoke in favor of the proposal, and described how he came to this conclusion through (wait for it) dialog. Dialog is how we learn to trust each other, and that trust is what is missing from this debate. Whatever the outcome of this long and difficult process is, if it leads to relationships being built and trust being developed between opposing parties, it would be a success.

I, for one trust that the Park Service would work in the best interest of the American people and be responsive to the needs and concerns of the local residents in the development and management of a North Woods National Monument. I also understand that the priorities of the Park Service will not always align with those of all the stakeholders (though one of the ongoing problems of this debate is defining just who gets to be a stake holder? Sometimes the stakeholders include the people of Maine, other times only the residents of Patten and Medway and East Millinocket are given standing). I don’t always agree with what the Park Service does (ticketing people who entered Acadia during the last government shut down is one example), but on the balance I am glad they exist and do what they do. Luckily, the scope of this proposed monument is not the entire northern third of the state. It doesn’t encompass the whole north woods (and in fact is only a tiny fraction of Maine’s northern forest). Just like we need to have a mosaic of economic opportunities, we can also have a mosaic of management priorities across the landscape (and even across the 87,000+ acres under consideration, some to be managed as monument, others to be managed as recreation area).

Paddling the East Branch, mid 90's.

Paddling the East Branch, mid 90’s.

I am lucky enough to have spent some time in the region now under consideration for a National Monument. As a student at the University of Maine I worked for the outdoor program and took several trips down the East Branch of the Penobscot, paddling some of the rapids and portaging our heavy Old Town canoes around the four big drops. Thoreau’s The Maine Woods finally made sense to me as I paddled in his wake (and the book inspired the name of this blog). It is an amazing place, with an amazing river running through it. It would be a great compliment to the portfolio of protected land in Maine.

Two comments ring in my head even now a week later as I keep ruminating on this debate. One, from a Millinocket town official who wondered out loud his inner thought “What happens if nothing happens?” The second from the 9 year old girl from Benedicta, the face of the future of the north Maine woods area. We could all use a dose of the open hearted generosity she showed with her comment “I love the outdoors and want to share it with everyone”. I hope that sentiment, whatever form it takes, is indeed the future.

Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.