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Forests at Risk: Shifting the Fight to the Maine Woods : Environment: California's woods aren't the only ones disappearing. Now the question is how much control can be placed over private land?

July 07, 1991|Phyllis Austin | Phyllis Austin is a reporter for the Maine Times, a statewide weekly newspaper

BRUNSWICK, ME. — New England's wilderness is gone. What's left is a ragtag forest not worth saving for the national good--or so Westerners may think, accustomed as they are to viewing the grand landscape of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska as the country's lone wild frontier and vast timber storehouse.

In fact, there remains in tamed, long-settled New England a huge unbroken forest that's one of America's greatest natural treasures and wood baskets. The so-called Northern Forest contains 26 million acres stretching from the eastern shore of Lake Ontario to Maine's most northeasterly point on the Atlantic. This irreplaceable oasis of nature is rapidly becoming the focus of a major national environmental campaign. One aspect alone should make this area--about the size of Virginia--priceless by Western standards: It harbors the last of New England's old-growth trees. There are 16,000 acres of softwoods and hardwoods such as hemlock and oak, much of it in Maine.

Although almost all the Northern Forest is privately owned, two centuries of sparse population and relatively benign management have left this tier of forests, mountains, lakes and rivers as the largest remaining wild area in the East. Landowners have largely conserved the public's interest in open space, aesthetics, wildlife habitat, clean water and recreational access.

But the strain of overpopulation, second-home development, massive clear-cutting and pressures from Wall Street on longtime owners to sell are threatening to change the Northern Forest's face and character. The forest increasingly has less market value as timberland than its value as house lots.

National environmental groups have rushed to the rescue, issuing a coast-to-coast call to arms to protect the Northern Forest for all time. National Audubon Society official Brock Evans promises that the campaign will be even bigger in the next few years "than the ancient forest campaign we're just going through in the Pacific Northwest." The Wilderness Society and Audubon, the campaign leaders, propose federal acquisition on a large scale because it offers the greatest protection. Their vision is a new national park, national forest or refuge covering a substantial amount of the Northern Forest, with other kinds of conservation agreements to protect the remainder.

There's little doubt that the outcome of this campaign may establish a national model for forest use and protection where private ownership predominates. Whose woods are they, when, although deeded to a private party, they contain significant national and state resources owned by the public? How far can the public go in limiting decisions and forest practices of present-day owners? What economic burdens are reasonable to place on taxpayers to help large corporations keep their forest holdings? What rights should these corporations yield in return? The fight could settle in the Northeast, perhaps forever, whether there will be any large-scale land preservation.

What's happening in the Northern Forest is a historic transformation. For generations, millions of acres have been held by a dozen companies, families and trusts. Traditionally, the land has been used to grow timber and was open to the public for skiing, hunting, fishing and camping. In the golden '80s, the expansion of interstate highways, the economic boom and deteriorating city life sent hordes of urban dwellers scurrying to the Northern Forest for recreation and to buy a little wilderness before it was gone. Speculators bought large tracts, chopped them into house sites and sold them for four, six, 10 times the value they had as timber-growing land.

At the same time, major forest land tracts held by big corporations began to change hands. The first big turnover was 1.6-million acres owned by Diamond International in New York, New Hampshire and Maine. The sale to speculators and developers plainly demonstrated the close link between Wall Street and the future of the Northern Forest. Taking note of the profits Diamond made, other big landowners inventoried their tracts around scenic lakes and ponds and put out for-sale signs.

The situation propelled the Northern Forest onto the public agenda. Congress conceded the critical importance of the region's forests for jobs, recreation and wildlife and appropriated $250,000 for a U.S. Forest Service study of the threats and challenges. A 12-member task force was appointed to help the Forest Service with a national forest lands study. Given the power of the paper companies, it wasn't surprising when the task force was stacked with pro-industry members.

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