Protecting Livelihoods and Landscapes in Northern Maine

Conference at Colby College

March 14, 2008


The Role of Government


Brief Synopsis


Northern Maine contains the largest contiguous commercial forest in the northeastern United States. Its substantially undeveloped backcountry offers 3,000 lakes and ponds, 21,000 miles of rivers and streams and hundreds of mountain peaks of great significance to recreational and conservation interests.[1] Yet the region is now facing critical challenges affecting its livelihoods and landscapes. Some believe that, as presently organized, government may not be well equipped to deal with these tough problems. The purpose of this conference panel is to consider whether -- and which -- changes in government structure and policy, both in broad perspective and in specific measure, would be helpful in dealing with the region's uncertain future.


The Historical Context for Government's Role


For thousands of years, Wabanaki Tribes inhabited the area that is now the State of Maine. Land use practices were dictated by the need to acquire the necessities of life from the forest in a long term, sustainable manner. Watersheds and other natural features provided the geographical boundaries that different tribal groups used for subsistence gathering and resource protection activities. Land ownership and management, as Europeans understood these concepts, did not exist; rather, while land was governed by Tribal groups, it was used communally by their members.


Even after European conquest, the vast forested landscapes of Maine's northern reaches remained substantially undeveloped, held in a few large, family or corporate ownerships. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these lands were used primarily for production of forest products, particularly fiber for paper and pulp produced at Maine mills owned by its major corporate landowners. For most of this time, the forest products industry formed the State's economic backbone.


Mirroring these patterns, Maine's policies and customs were highly attuned to powerful traditions of private forest land ownership accompanied by informal, open access for low-impact recreation by the public, all with little government involvement. Even the state's two largest public land ownerships, Baxter State and Acadia National Parks, which are eclipsed by the scale of private land holdings in the State, were created entirely as the result of actions by private landowners.


In keeping with these traditions, local governments had little or no role in guiding economic and land use decisions. Indeed, in most of the region there has never been a population sufficient to organize municipal government; even in those areas where local government existed, by design it played a minimalist role in land use matters.


However, beginning in the early 1970's, State government initiated a series of programs aimed at influencing private development of these lands to protect the public values at stake. In addition to the Tree Growth Tax Law which encourages current forestry uses, the Legislature created the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) to plan, zone and oversee development and other non-forestry land uses in that half of the State that remains unincorporated into municipalities. While the Commission adopted a comprehensive plan as well as a wide variety of resource-based zones and land use regulations for its vast jurisdiction, its program has remained largely reactive to development and land use pressures rather than providing a specific blueprint for future land utilization. Moreover, certain types of development are exempt from LURC regulation, particularly creation of up to 3 lots in any 5 year period. As recent LURC reports have found, these exemptions have resulted in substantial amounts of land parcelization and related development that go substantially without planning or subdivision regulation.


Both in its regulatory and land ownership roles, the federal government's presence in Northern Maine has remained modest. Regulatory impacts on land use have principally involved the Endangered Species Act, which has had modest effects on livelihoods and landscapes by reason of listings of endangered species like eagles, Atlantic Salmon and now of Canada lynx. Federal land acquisition programs have involved a small portion of the White Mountain National Forest (in western Maine), the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge (in eastern Maine) and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (in Northern Maine), the latter which, while owned and administered by the State, was acquired with funds and designated under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Finally, the federal government holds certain trust lands on behalf and for the benefit of the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe.


The Change in Our Midst


Many of what were once sacred assumptions governing the livelihoods and landscapes of Northern Maine have radically changed just over the last decade or so, all with such rapidity that social and economic institutions, government policies and public expectations and attitudes have experienced considerable difficulty keeping pace. Many of Maine's forest products industrial plants have significantly cut production and/or employment. The State's historically largest single industrial enterprise and landowner, legendary Great Northern Paper Company, has gone bankrupt, its mills sold and vastly curtailed in employment, its forest land empire forfeited.


Also significant in the past decade, there has been an extraordinary degree of buying, selling and fragmenting of land ownerships in this region, with prices sometimes far exceeding those based upon forestry uses. Maine's forest lands are increasingly owned by real estate investment trusts, insurance companies and other investor groups. Unlike most of the major landowners in the past, these new enterprises own no mills that require a supply of wood and instead often look to their land investments for higher and faster yielding returns. Meanwhile, fragmented ownerships make long term forest land management more difficult to sustain economically.


Even as the forest products industry remains important to the State, employment has plummeted, and with that the local economies of communities that relied most heavily upon that industry. Unlike previous periodic downturns in the economy, the changes this time are fundamental, systemic and promise to be enduring.


Partly as a result of these changes, conservation acquisition by private, non-profit groups has also recently seen an extraordinarily rapid increase. These organizations have been particularly active in purchasing conservation easements designed to restrain certain types of development while allowing continued use of the land for timber harvesting. The Pingree conservation easement alone, at 765,000 acres, is the largest in the nation.


Meanwhile, there are ominous trends affecting traditional public access to the forest lands of Northern Maine for recreation. In a state where there is little public land and 90% of recreational activities occur on private land, the potential loss of access to the great recreational and natural resources of the Maine Woods is perceived as an extremely serious concern of statewide significance.


Of immediate importance, the controversial development proposal advanced by Plum Creek corporation, a western real estate investment trust and the largest private landowner in the nation, is illustrative of some of these recent trends. Owner of nearly a million acres in Northern Maine, Plum Creek has applied to LURC for rezoning of over 400,000 acres around Moosehead Lake, in order to create 2300 housing units and two major resorts in the largest private development project ever proposed in Maine. As mitigation, Plum Creek offers a conservation easement of 90,000 acres, with an additional 260,000 acres of easement to be sold for $35 million (including in likely public subsidies), conditioned on LURC approval of its development project. Supporters legitimately contend that this project, including both its development and conservation components, is the most comprehensively planned in Maine. Opponents counter that current LURC planning and regulation are insufficient to handle a project of this scale, that the development is too large and some of it inappropriately sited, that the proffered conservation easements are inadequate, and that the project will destroy the integrity of the land for habitat, forestry, recreation and conservation. Whether pro or con, many see the Plum Creek project, if approved, as establishing the new prototype for development and conservation of much of the rest of the Maine Woods.


A New Government Paradigm?


The question is whether – and how -- government policies and institutions should now evolve to respond to this revolution in the fabric of livelihoods and landscapes in Northern Maine.


One option, of course, is to take no action. This choice, even though envisioning no change in approach, nonetheless will lead to continued changes in the future, perhaps at an accelerated pace. Extrapolating from the recent past, if nothing is done to intercede, Northern Maine can expect more fragmentation of land ownerships, a diminishing forest products industry perhaps priced out of the real estate market, additional and scattered development and probably a continued erosion of public access to the Maine Woods. Against this tide, enclaves of conserved lands and working forest conservation easements will likely continue to be purchased and set aside in selected areas, primarily as a result of actions by private stakeholders but with the use of direct and indirect public subsidies.


Does this overall picture represent the best possible future that Northern Maine can hope for? Or, would a substantial change of the government paradigm result in a better future? What might that paradigm shift entail?


Should there be strengthening of the LURC planning and zoning scheme, one that could entail tighter development restrictions, curtailment of sprawl, targeting future development in areas pre-selected as appropriate, reserving most of the jurisdiction for traditional forest products production where such use is economic? Should there be an elimination of the exemption from LURC subdivision regulation for the creation of up to three lots every five years, an exemption that has been shown to result in substantial, unregulated sprawl? Should there be more meaningful, regionalized and precise planning and zoning, to replace the largely ad hoc, reactive scheme that LURC has traditionally relied upon?


Should the State tighten up its Tree Growth and other tax programs, so that these laws cannot be used to shelter property or its income while the owner awaits the prospect of more lucrative development? Are there other state laws that should be restructured or enacted to encourage a future for Northern Maine that is ecologically and economically sustainable?


Or, should Maine plan to move beyond its forest products industry? Should the State instead hitch its wagon more closely to the tourist economy? If so, what needs to be done to make Northern Maine a better magnet for tourists? Are the current land conservation programs the answer?


Are working forest conservation easements, as the tool of choice so far in conserving lands at least from certain types of development, the best acquisition option to protect natural and public values? Instead of continuing the current level of effort to assemble conservation easements largely through private action albeit with public subsidies, is there a role for government to focus on significant, integrated public land acquisition that provides for more meaningful public access rights and recreational management geared to an economy dependent on tourism? If so, what might be the relative roles of state and federal governments, as well as of landowners and non-profits, in achieving bold new public land acquisition policies?


Or by contrast, can a better future for Northern Maine be secured through less reliance upon state and federal governments, and more upon local, county and other government entities that can be more responsive to the interests of the local populace? If so, how should the needs and visions of the rest of Maine's people play a role?


Regarding lands held for Indian tribes, should these have land use autonomy independent of state regulation? What do the rest of us have to learn from the Tribal concept of communal ownership and use?


What about the roles of private landowners, non-profits and other stakeholders in creating a better vision – and more effective implementation of that vision – to secure the future of Northern Maine? Is government the right agent to bring about needed change, or should government take a back seat to the private sector in setting the course? Without an activist government role, how can the public have meaningful input and impact on the future of the Maine Woods? Is there a way for government, conservation groups and landowners to work congruently with a greater singleness of purpose?


Jeff Pidot

February 2008


[1] These and several other factual references in this paper are drawn from this conference's companion student paper, Aime Schwartz, Emmie Theberge and Emily Sinnott, The State of Land and Resource Use in the Unorganized Territories of Maine (2007),