Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest on the proposal to turn parts of the Northern Forest in Maine into a big national park?
— Peter Griswold, Jaffrey, NH
The idea of turning a large chunk of forest in central Maine into a national park dates back at least 150 years when Henry David Thoreau himself called for making the region “a national preserve” in essays about his travels through the area via foot and canoe in the 1850s. To this day most of the areas in central Maine that Thoreau visited are still primarily undeveloped save for intermittent timber extraction.
But recent changes in land ownership there are worrying ecologists. The non-profit RESTORE: The North Woods has been carrying the torch for creating a Maine Woods National Park and Preserve for 20 years and reports that, between 1994 and 2005, the share of forest land in Maine’s 9.3 million acre Unorganized Territory owned by timber companies dropped from 59.2 to 15.5 percent while that owned by investors grew from 3.2 to 32.6 percent. RESTORE is concerned that this dramatic change positions the region for a real estate gold rush. A huge development already planned for the shores of Moosehead Lake in the region is just one example of the kinds of changes afoot that could decimate the region’s wilderness qualities.
RESTORE’s proposal, first aired in 1994, calls for setting aside 3.2-million acres surrounding Baxter State Park (home of Maine’s tallest peak, Mt. Katahdin, and the northern tip of the Appalachian Trail) as a national park. Bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined, the proposed park would safeguard thousands of miles of rivers and streams while providing unfragmented habitat for wildlife.
According to RESTORE, the proposed park would be one of the largest tracts of undeveloped wilderness east of the Rockies, and it is needed “to protect wildlife habitat on a landscape scale to allow for adaptation in the face of unprecedented climate change.” Also, the proposed park would ensure permanent access for outdoor recreation and support a diversified and sustainable economy. Although RESTORE’s campaign has the backing of a majority of Maine residents, it has failed to gain enough traction to make it before Congress. Some blame local opposition, allied as the Maine Woods Coalition, for convincing the state’s Congressional delegation not to push for the proposal.
A new proposal from Burt’s bees founder Roxanne Quimby later rekindled the issue: In May 2011 she offered to donate up to 70,000 acres she owns adjacent to Baxter State Park for a new national park, along with a $40 million endowment for park operations. And to appease those opposed to RESTORE’s proposal, she offered a similar amount of land for multiple-use, including hunting. Quimby’s proposal includes only lands she owns, and would create a much smaller park than what RESTORE envisioned.
A few months after Quimby made her offer known U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis held a public listening session in Millinocket, Maine. But then in February 2012, Maine’s Congressional delegation convinced Secretary Salazar to table the new proposal for the time being. So for now, the fate of millions of trees—the veritable lungs of the Northeastern U.S.—and hundreds of wildlife species may just hang in the balance.