Battle in the North Woods
It is the biggest battle you never heard of. At least it’s the biggest battle if you believe Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) has any control over what happens in the “North Woods.”
LURC’s jurisdiction actually covers ten million acres of unorganized territory in western, northern, and eastern Maine. The agency is housed in the Department of Conservation with a commission of gubernatorial appointees as its decision-making body. In 2005 the commission began the process of revising the Comprehensive Land Use Plan (the CLUP), the agency’s primary policy and planning document. And we’ve been fighting about it ever since.
Now, finally, the plan is heading down the homestretch. Tomorrow, September 2, LURC’s staff will present its current draft of the plan to the commission and recommend a series of public hearings on the document at the end of September.
If the commission agrees at its meeting tomorrow, the schedule of hearings will be posted on the agency’s Web site at LURC@maine.gov. You will also be able to access the plan at that site and submit written comments on the plan.
Brace yourself. The plan is long and rather tedious. You may wonder what all the fuss is about. Well, it’s about words. And these days, words matter, at least when it comes to the future of the North Woods.
Protecting to Death
We are blessed with the privilege of use of private lands in the unorganized territories, often without knowing who owns these woods we enjoy. There has been too much focus on “protecting” what we all value there, and not enough on the rights and needs of the landowners and the people who are trying to make a living there.
That’s really what the fight is all about, pitting landowners against environmentalists, to put it in the simplest of terms. Sportsmen are sort of in the middle, although everyone involved has been forced to choose a side. I chose the side of the landowners, simply because it’s their land and I appreciate the fact they let me use it.
The new plan should focus on what is best for the landowners, the economy, and the people who recreate on these lands. Some of the proposed language in the first draft of the plan was threatening to landowners, counter to the area’s economic needs, and detrimental to those who currently recreate there or who want to recreate there in the future. Sportsmen like the North Woods the way they are and don’t see any need to make radical changes.
A significant amount of contention has developed over language in the plan that seems to favor “primitive backcountry” recreation as opposed to the more traditional activities that now predominate in the North Woods. Landowners who harvest trees support traditional recreation on their property, for the most part, but are leery of those of advocate for more primitive backcountry experiences. To many landowners, those folks are the enemy.
It’s About Jobs
The Brookings Institution reported that from 1970 to 2004, several rural Maine counties experienced inflation-adjusted income growth of less than 1 percent. Average annual wages in Aroostook and Washington counties actually decreased! Aroostook County lost 3,000 jobs! A lot of land in these counties is governed by LURC. So LURC must be part of their economic solution. LURC can’t build its plan without recognizing these economic realities and addressing these serious economic problems.
If they do, they will fail our state and its people.
The things that are working well for the economy of this area are forestry, snowmobiling, and bear hunting. The thing that is not working well is primitive wilderness backcountry. Visitor numbers in those areas have plummeted. Tenting is out. Luxury is in!
My wife and I once stayed in a lodge in the vast remote wilderness of western Alaska that is so elegant and upscale that they charge $7500 for five days of fishing. Imagine if we had lodges like that in the North Woods! And I hasten to add that the famous rainbow trout fishery in that region is sustained by catch-and-release restrictions for 300 square miles. Linda and I caught many four and five pound rainbows and two eight pounders. It is just unbelievable.
The Bear Truth
Here’s a bit of news about bear hunting. A study that economist Charles Colgan did in 2004 indicated that over the following ten years bear hunting would contribute an average of $56.9 to $71.8 million to the Maine economy annually, and provide 703 to 887 jobs. A high percentage of Maine’s bear hunting is conducted in LURC territory. And the bear hunting industry depends on accessible bait sites.
Unfortunately, bear hunting and snowmobiling are the very activities that would be eliminated in remote wilderness that some groups advocate for in Maine – and are in fact being eliminated even in accessible areas right now, including ecoreserves. The Appalachian Mountain Club shut down thirty miles of snowmobile trails and banned bear baiting soon after taking ownership of its lands in the Katahdin Ironworks area.
In the last draft of the plan (I have not yet seen the new draft), there is language that would indicate a lack of understanding about what people really want in the North Woods.
AMC coined the phrase “rustic luxury” in its testimony at LURC’s hearings on Plum Creek conservation and development plan for the Moosehead region. One of AMC’s expert witnesses testified that ecotourists want comfortable accommodations with all the amenities from flush toilets to hot tubs and wine bars, with the “wilderness” right outside their back door. I’m sure that is true. And I remember a UMO researcher who testified that ecotourists won’t visit a place where the forest is being harvested. Probably true also.
The first draft of the plan also suggested limits on the size of structures and the amenities available in the North Woods. If someone is able to construct cabins that can command $7500 a week, why not?
If LURC limits people’s dreams, including their economic dreams, and sharply reduces what can be done in the unorganized territories, it will severely limit any chance of attracting investment there, including investments that are needed to improve our fishery and expand our fishing economy.
I am alarmed by the notion, included in the plan, that someone other than the camp owner will determine the size and amenities that can be enjoyed at his or her camp. My camp, in the LURC jurisdiction, is part of an old sporting camp on Sourdahunk Lake just outside Baxter Park. The camps were sold as a condominium project. Because we have a water system that serves all of our privately owned camps, we are considered a water utility. Why would LURC want to prohibit such a thing?
It’s hard to accept that those who lug their cell phones into the heart of Baxter Park would deny me the opportunity to enjoy telephone communications from my nearby camp. Will the laptop computers used by game wardens today be banned from the North Woods because they don’t meet someone’s concept of wilderness?
You can’t turn back the clock on technology, nor should we try to do so in the LURC plan. Our ancestors lived in caves but none of us want to go back to those days. Many people want flush toilets, hot showers, laptops and cell phones, even at camp. Some people even like their big TVs so they can watch the Red Sox. They should not be denied. I can’t even imagine why someone thinks those things must be banned in wilderness or any other settings.
I once stepped into a large two-story cabin that was a two-hour floatplane ride from the nearest road in Alaska, looked out the back window at Mount Denali, then turned and noticed a huge television set. I never turned on the TV, but I wouldn’t deny the next visitor that opportunity. I did open the refrigerator, a lot, as soon as I discovered it was full of beer.
I have combed through the LURC plan to find out if alcoholic beverages were going to be limited. I didn’t see it, thankfully. But really, too much of what we are debating is simply one person imposing his or her values and interests over someone else’s values and interests. Protect the resources, sure, but don’t tell us how and where we can use them, and please, make sure those who own the land are able to achieve their goals for the land they own.
I’ve been blessed to visit a lot of incredibly beautiful areas, some of which are true wilderness, and I always appreciated the comforts and amenities available there, from ATVs to chain saws to cold beer.
Perhaps you have read the report of the Governor’s Council on Maine’s Quality of Place, chaired by Dick Barringer. The report talks about the need for “carefully managed access,” and an asset-based investment strategy. The council’s top recommendation is “Recognize and Support Private Landowners’ Crucial Role in Protecting Maine’s Quality of Place.”
The council even suggests providing market incentives to encourage private landowners to continue to allow public access to their lands and supporting public education efforts to ensure respectful use of private lands by the public. These are good recommendations for LURC as commissioners create a plan that governs private lands in a huge area of the state.
Over the last decade, nearly two million acres have been placed in easement and fee conservation ownership, including most of the land around Sourdahunk Lake. We are getting the job of conservation done and securing our future in the North Woods, irregardless of the LURC plan. The burden is not LURC’s alone, and we are all stepping up.
LURC does need to worry about keeping the private land in the remaining portions of the jurisdiction viable for the owners and producing jobs and income for the people of Maine. That’s what the plan should do. That’s what the plan must do.
I encourage you to get onto this battlefield and fire away.