State of Maine's Environment 2005
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An Environmental Assessment  

Population Changes in Maine’s North Woods

Hilary H. Langer



Rural America faces unique opportunities and challenges for providing a high quality of life. With dispersed residents and amenities, rural areas can provide easy access to natural resources and distance from stresses of urban life. However, they may lack services available in urban centers and, because their economies often depend on only a few industries, economic downturns may hit rural areas particularly hard. 1-3  Attracting and retaining a stable population, balancing appropriate development with conservation, and offering quality services are all issues that rural communities must address. Despite these difficulties, positive beliefs about rural life convince one quarter of all Americans to live in these communities.

The United States Census Bureau defines rural areas as places outside of urbanized areas or clusters. Population density never exceeds 1,000 people per square mile and rural census blocks average fewer than 500 people per square mile.4 The issues rural areas confront are particularly acute in Maine, which has the third highest rate of rural dwellers in the United States and is dependent on the timber and tourism industry. Currently, much of rural Maine faces declining populations, a trend which is out of sync with the “rural rebound” occurring in other parts of the country. Urbanization and sprawl are increasingly prevalent across the state. Maine’s rural communities must strive to maintain stable populations that can support schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, and other public services. To attract and retain rural residents, Maine must evaluate major attractions such as access to outdoor recreation and proactively plan for vibrant communities.

In this paper I explore both the historical and modern composition of rural Maine and the issues that the state faces as it plans for the future. Understanding the reasons for rural population changes in other regions of the United States can inform community planning in Maine.



            This study was conducted during the Fall of 2005 in Waterville, Maine. The majority of the information comes from domestic and international journals and articles in edited volumes. In addition, data were drawn from town, county, state sources available through the US Census Bureau, the Raymond H. Fogler Library at the University of Maine. Site visits were made to the Maine’s North Woods and interviews were carried out with local residents, planners, and developers.


Context: History of Rural Settlement in Maine

            In Maine, rural populations have played a major role in shaping the state’s character. Early settlement in Maine’s rural areas is attributed to economic and social conditions across America and the scenic beauty of Maine itself. When first settled by Europeans, Maine was described as a place of limitless land coupled with daily hardships. Historian Moses Greenleaf wrote,


“the climate and soil of Maine have been represented as harsh and rugged, unfavorable to the successful pursuit of agriculture, or to the comfortable support of a dense population.”5    


Accounts from this time cite the cold climate’s as an obstacle to agricultural production but an important suppressor of disease that ultimately benefited the health of settlers. For a subset of Americans, Maine provided opportunities for land ownership and a labor-intensive living. The prospect of obtaining very inexpensive land provided enough of an incentive for many to brave the cold.5 Greenleaf notes the appeal of Maine’s large tracts of sparsely inhabited land,


“…immense tracts of uncultivated and fertile land, with which Maine abounds, have afforded room for the population to diffuse itself at pleasure, as inclination or convenience dictated; so that no occasion has existed for the population of any part of the State, to condense itself beyond the degree most convenient for its comfortable support…”6 


Even before it separated from Massachusetts in 1820, Maine developed a reputation as a remote area with strong willed inhabitants.6 

In the late 18th century, many settlers were motivated to move to Maine in order to minimize the risks of the revolutionary war.6   The influx of immigrants during this period increased talk of rural Maine as an unexploited region with fertile soils. This sparked land speculation and general interest in the state6. Enthusiasm was tempered, however, when settlers confronted the winter climate and suffered losses during the unusually severe weather of 1816 and 1817.6 The hardships of settlement in Maine distinguished it as an area where only the most resourceful of individuals settled as pioneers.7  Nonetheless, the war compelled a significant number of men to establish themselves in Maine and ultimately send for their wives and children. This contributed to the early population growth in the region. When Maine broke from Massachusetts and became the nation’s 23rd state in 1820,  the population was estimated to be between 240,000 to 300,000.7

In comparison to other areas of New England, Maine offered individuals the freedom to live with very few government controls. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, settlers moved to Maine’s Unorganized Territories to escape the burden of taxation. Unorganized Territories, which have no local incorporated government, allowed settlers to live their lives away from government interference. Although many of the Unorganized Territories supported a large and wealthy enough population to be incorporated as towns (and thus subject to taxation), citizens resisted the Legislature’s pressure to become incorporated. Independence from the government was stressed as an important aspect of life in these rural parts of Maine.6 Today, there are over 400 townships in the Unorganized Territories; they cover more than half of the state. Under modern laws, the Maine Legislature and the county in which an Unorganized Territory is located organize taxation and public services such as schools. Despite changes in government structure of Maine’s Unorganized Territories, early settlers established an ethos of independence and self reliance that is still evident today.


Contemporary Population Trends in Maine

            Currently, over 1.26 million people live in Maine. Despite increasing urbanization in Southern Maine, the state continues to have one of the highest proportions its population living in rural areas. Analysis of data from the US Census Bureau shows that in 1990 Maine had the third highest percentage of its total population residing in rural areas (55.4%). Only West Virginia (63.9%) and Vermont (67.8%) had higher proportions. Currently, many rural areas across America are considered population “rebound” areas that expect a population revival.8  Maine, however, has not been experiencing an influx of rural residents. Although data for 2004 reflect a significant decrease in the proportion of Maine residents in rural areas (42%), Maine continues to have significantly more of its population living in rural areas than most states. This demands that state government and local communities work to promote rural interests. 4   Figure 1 shows Maine’s historically high percentage of rural residents compared to the rest of the nation.


Figure 1. Percent of Maine and United States Population Residing in Rural Areas: 1900-2000 (no data point available for the US in 2000)


            The increase in Maine’s total population has been dominated by growth in urban and suburban regions of the state. Planning for these changes is necessary for promoting vibrant urban and rural centers while avoiding sprawl. Figure 2 shows that despite an increase of over 145,000 residents in urban areas between 1980 and 2004, population increases in rural areas increased by only 47,000 individuals.


Figure 2. Maine's Rural and Urban Population Change: 1980-2004


            When population growth is considered at the county level, disparities in rural versus urban population changes are evident. Figure 3 shows the differences in population growth between 1800 and 2000 in four different counties. These counties were chosen to highlight the differences in population growth between counties that are more urban and those dominated by rural areas. It shows that Penobscot County, which includes the city of Bangor, experienced the highest population growth rate. During this same period the county of Piscataquis, which includes the town of Greenville, a gateway to Maine’s North Woods, increased only slightly


Figure 3. County Population Change: 1840-2000. Illustrates the large range in population growth patterns of different Maine counties


Challenges for Rural Communities

Low population density can present challenges for rural areas, particularly if the total number of residents declines. Communities must work to maintain relatively stable population levels, provide high quality social services, and provide job opportunities for residents. Sustaining the total number of residents is crucially important for stabilizing the tax base and ensuring that high quality services can be provided. Planning budgets for schools, hospitals, and fire and police services is complicated by population fluctuations. Schools are particularly affected by population changes. Without enough school aged children, some communities are forced to consider closing local schools and busing students to other areas.

Figure 4 illustrates the distribution of school districts that fall under Unorganized Territory jurisdiction and the related scarceness of police and fire facilities. It suggests the distribution of services based on population density. The map indicates the distribution of services provided.


Figure 4. Comparison of the distribution of fire and police stations and school districts in Maine’s Unorganized Territories


Lessons from the Rural Rebound in Western US States

            Regions in the western United States have undergone a rural rebound that offers lessons for Maine’s rural communities. Experiences there suggest that demographics, economics, and ecosystems form a dynamic relationship in rural America.4, 9  For example, natural resources and scenic beauty can generate site specific economies and provide employment for rural populations.2  However, environmental degradation or economic downturns may result in rural population decreases as individuals move to urban areas in search of employment.4, 10 

Studies also suggest that a move away from resource extraction industries and towards technology-based or recreation-based industries initially reduces negative environmental impacts.11  Job opportunities, no longer limited by resources, may support a larger working community. Increases in population follow employment opportunities and provide incentives for undeveloped or agricultural land to be converted to residential developments. Thus, technology-based or recreation-based industries have been shown to produce a greater environmental impact than industries based on natural resource use.4   Importantly, the growth of any recreation-based industries makes the preservation of an area’s “sense of wilderness” a significant factor for maintaining economic stability.

In addition to population changes associated with new industries and employment, land use changes challenge traditional beliefs about natural resources and economic growth. Locations that have historically depended on industries such as farming, mining, and logging may view land conservation efforts as an attack on economic security and population stability.4  As rural job opportunities change, areas attract residents with different social and educational backgrounds.4, 12, 13  These new residents may feel less economic dependence on natural resources and can be more comfortable with changes in how land is used.

Over the last decade, the Western United States has experienced land use change more intensely than anywhere else in the country. Increasingly, agricultural or open land is being converted into seasonal and year round residences. Residents in this region have experienced changes in jobs from those based on natural resources to technology-based and tourism and recreation-based employment. Studies of new rural populations in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming indicate an adjustment in the way that rural residents value nature. Unlike previous populations, which valued natural resources based primarily on their economic potential, new residents state scenic beauty and a sense of wilderness are the most compelling reasons for living in rural areas.

Interestingly, scenic beauty is an even more important indicator of population growth than economic opportunities.4  Studies comparing the natural amenities index of regions to their population growth rate during the period from 1970 to 1996 examine “natural amenities” of rural areas, a term categorized in an index by the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture as reflecting an area’s climate, topography and water area. To rank an area’s natural amenities, these three characteristics are assessed and scored. Locations with a high natural amenities score provide scenic beauty and opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The natural amenities index of rural areas was significantly correlated with the levels of population growth experienced there. Strong correlations were also found between communities experiencing rural population rates that exceeded national averages and proximity to wilderness areas. Interviews conducted with new rural inhabitants and business owners echoed previous studies and discovered that the environment and quality of life were more powerful incentives for rural migration than economic opportunities.12, 14, 15  The researchers also found that the education level of residents, the number of jobs available in the service industry and the presence of an operating airport were major contributors to population growth. The study concluded that these socioeconomic factors combined with environmental factors accounted for 79% of the rural population growth in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.4  Such findings highlight the need to plan for population change16, 17 and to consider the positive impact that access to undeveloped land can have on population levels.


Maine’s Population Trends in Comparison to National Trends

Population trends in Maine’s North Woods do not correspond with national patterns. Rural Maine has seen little recent population growth. In contrast, since 1990, most rural areas across the United States have witnessed an influx of residents and a revival of their economies and social services.18  Between 1990 and 1994, three quarters of rural counties across America experienced population growth. 1   This pattern has meant that 25% of all Americans live in non-rural areas that are serviced by a metropolitan center.10  Although rural areas are not growing as rapidly as metropolitan areas,  positive growth represents a shift from the 1980s when the average American rural area experienced population decline. This growth echoes similar trends in the 1970s when rural areas faced an increase in their populations and the amount of services demanded.10, 9 Recent migration to rural areas is a result of several factors: a shift in land use, improved options for working from a computer home, a growing appreciation for the values and morals perceived to be common in rural areas, and rising prices in city and suburban real estate.

Nationally, regions experiencing the rural rebound have witnessed the conversion of agricultural land to full time or seasonal residences. Encouraged by rising real estate values, many rural landowners sell and develop their land for far higher returns than can be obtained by agricultural use. In contrast, land ownership and use changes in rural Maine have been characterized not by a shift from agriculture to residential use, but by a shift in timberland ownership. The Plum Creek Company, one of the larger landowners in the state of Maine, provides an example of that trend in Maine. Although the company was previously focused on the harvest of timber, the appreciation of land values has encouraged a re-examination of their holdings and, in western states, has prompted the sale of their land for development. Thus, it is possible that Maine’s future land use changes will be characterized by a shift from timber use to development.

            In addition to land use changes, the rise of computer-based information sharing is cited as a second factor in the rural rebound. Such technology has enabled many Americans to live outside of urban areas and “telecommute”, or work from home. It is responsible for some of the population shift to rural areas and the ability for residents to continue to live in non-metropolitan areas despite economic changes.19  Telecommuting is a new phenomenon that was not present during the last national rural population gains of the 1970s. Today, some rural communities view telecommuters as particular assets and try to attract them in part because they do not depend on local industries and can provide a buffer in times of economic downturns. Individuals who are able to work from home in industries unrelated to the local economy can play important roles in non-urban areas that faced economic downturns in the 1980s. These residents bring with them an income that translates into local spending and tax revenues. Many rural areas feel that opportunities to telecommute make rural lifestyles more accessible to urban migrants. Generally, rural areas that are within several hours driving distance of a metropolitan area and are serviceable by an airport are most attractive to telecommuters.

            One challenge for rural communities hoping to attract telecommuters is the development of necessary technological infrastructure.15  Rural areas may be encumbered by their distance from communications headquarters and often face more expensive rates for phone, internet, and cable television service and poor reception on cellular networks.20  Moreover, mergers between large telecommunications firms threaten to slow the development of sufficient infrastructure in rural areas. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was developed to address these issues in both rural and urban areas and encourage industry competition and lower rates. This Act minimizes federal regulation to promote market deployment of higher quality service.21, 22  Unfortunately, the Act may engender negative long-term consequences for rural areas. Because rural areas lack the buying power of urban centers, telecommunication companies have little incentive to deploy the best and most expensive infrastructure in these locations. Reduced federal regulation may be appropriate for metropolitan areas, but is expected to have detrimental effects on rural areas trying to develop infrastructure and attract telecommuters. Subsequent legislation is likely to face more pressure for telecommunications laws that consider the unique needs of rural America.

In the Maine’s North Woods, telecommuters may form a portion of a demographic from which rural communities in need to more residents could benefit. Communities in this region may choose to follow the example of other rural communities and market themselves as desirable locations for individuals who are able to work from home.

            The idealization of rural life and values has been cited as a third driving force behind the attractiveness of exurban migration.23  In American literature and popular culture, rural areas are generally portrayed as locations that are isolated from the domestic and social stresses of urban life. Although it is impossible to fully assess the impact of positive notions of rural life on the ability for such areas to attract and retain residents, studies indicate that anecdotal evidence shows a strong link. Particularly, families with children cite rural values, morals, and ways of life as important factors in their decision to move to or continue living in rural areas. In Maine’s North Woods, the idealization of rural life combined with the scenic beauty of the region may be a catalyst for attracting both year round and seasonal residents.

            Over the last decade, property values in urban areas have increased at higher rates than values in rural areas. This trend is a fourth driver in the increased number of individuals moving to rural areas. Because of the extent of relatively inexpensive land in Maine, it is possible that rural communities in and surrounding the Maine’s North Woods have not experienced the same influx of residents due to urban real estate prices.



Maine’s North Woods is characterized by low population density and limited access to urban service centers. The rural character of this area presents opportunities for a high standard of living in a place of natural beauty. However, the potential shift away from natural resource based industries, particularly timber, will be accompanied by a change in the individuals who make their living in this rural area. The demographics of Maine’s North Woods and surrounding areas can be expected to correlate strongly with land use decisions made in the next decade. Lessons learned from areas of high rural population growth in other parts of the United States can help Northern Maine develop programs to attract and retain the residents that would be best suited for life in Maine’s rural communities. Ensuring access to natural amenities may help rural Maine attract new residents, but these individuals are likely to have values that differ from those of current residents

The need to maintain population levels that support schools, hospitals, and public services is crucial to rural Maine. Any changes in population will influence the type and nature of local social services and environmental health.11, 24  Understanding potential population changes and their implications associated with various land use options will help inform the assessment of any proposal for Maine’s North Woods. The land use decisions for this area will carry profound implications for future demographic trends across the state.


Literature Cited


1Glenn V. Fuguitt, Calvin L. Beale, John A. Fulton and Richard M. Gibson, "Recent Population Trends in Nonmetropolitan Cities and Villages: From the Turnaround Through Reversal to the Rebound", Research in Rural Sociology and Development: Focus on Migration  (1997): 1-24.

2Leslie A. Whitener, "Policy Options for a Changing Rural America", in, Amber Waves: US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service2005).

3Ralph J. Alig and Robert G. Healy, "Urban and Build-Up Land Area Changes in the United States: An Empirical Investigation of Determinants", Land Economics 63 (1987): 215-226.

4Andrew J. Hansen, Ray Rasker, Bruce Maxwell, Jay J. Rotella, Jerry D. Johnson, Andrewa Wright Parmenter, Ute Langner, Warren B. Cohen, Rick L. Lawrence and Matthew P.V. Kraska, "Ecological Causes and Consequences of Demographic Change in the New West", Bioscience 52 (2002): 151.

5Moses Greenleaf, A Survey of the State of Maine, In Reference to its Geographical Features, Statistics and Political EWconomy1829).

6Moses Greenleaf**, A survey of the state of Maine, in reference to its geographical features, statistics and political economy (**, 1829).

7Augustus F. Moulton, Maine: Historical Sketches (Lewiston, ME, 1929).

8Kenneth M. Johnson and Calvin L. Beale, "The Rural Rebound Revisited", American Demographics 17 (1995): 46-51.

9Herbert S. Klein, A Population History of the United States (Cambridge, UK, 2004), 300.

10Ralph J. Alig, Jeffery D. Kline and Mark Lichtenstein, "Urbanization on the US landscape: looking ahead in the 21st century", Landscape & Urban Planning 69 (2004): 219-235.

11Peter J. Smailes, Neil Argent and Trevor L.C. Griffin, "Rural population density: its impact on social and demographic aspects of rural communities", Journal of Rural Studies 18 (2002): 385-404.

12Sylvain Paquette and Derald Domon, "Rural Domestic Landscape Changes: a survey of the residential practices of local and migrant populations", Landscape Research 26 (2001): 367-395.

13Jan Lewandrowski Kevin Ingram, "Wildlife Conservation and Economic Development in the West", Rural Development Perspectives 14 (**need to check for date of volume**): 44-51.

14Mark Nord and John Cromartie, "Nonmetro Population Rebound: Still Real but Diminishing", Rural Conditons and Trends 9 (1999): 20-34.

15Marlow Vesterby and Ralph E. Heimlich, "Land Use and Demographic Change: Results from Fast-Growth Counties", Land Economics 67 (1991): 279-291.

16Deborah Howe, Carl Abbott and Sy Adler, "What's on the Horizon for Oregon Planners?" Journal of the American Planning Association 70 (2004): 391-397.

17Brack W. Hale, Michelle M. Steen-Adams, Katie Predick and Nick Fisher, "Ecological Conservation Through Aesthetic Landscape Planning: A Case Study of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway", Environmental Management 35 (2005): 381-391.

18Calvin Beale, "Nonmetro Population Rebound Continues and Broadens", Rural Conditons and Trends 7 (1996): 8-12.

19Patricia Braus, "Lone Eagles: The Ultimate Commuters", American Demographics 15 (1993): 10-13.

20Rick Reeder, "Changing Regulatory and Trade Climate May Enhance Rural Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability", Rural Conditons and Trends 11 (2000): 2-5.

21F. Larry Leistritz Randall S. Sell, John C. Allen, "Impact of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for Rural Areas", Rural Development Perspectives 13 (1998): 45-48.

22Rick Reeder, "Regulatory Policy Boosts Economic Competitiveness and Environmental Sustainability", Rural Conditons and Trends 11 (2000): 54-60.

23William B. Beyers and Peter B. Nelson, "Contemporary development forces in the nonmetropolitan west: new insights from rapidly growing communities", Journal of Rural Studies 16 (2000): 459-474.

24Kevin Ingram and Jan Lewandrowski, "Wildlife Conservation and Economic Development in the West", Rural Development Perspectives 14 (1999): 44-51.




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