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Sierra Magazine
Thoreau's Dream

The philosopher from Concord envisioned a preserve in the "mossy, moosey" Maine Woods. Is it still worth saving?

by Ted Williams

Last August I joined a whitewater expedition down the East Outlet of Moosehead Lake in the heart of the 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. Here, at the top of the Kennebec, the stacks of standing waves were plenty high enough to intimidate the tough inner-city kids of Boy Scout Troop 263 out of Hartford, Connecticut.

Big woods and clean water were alien to them. "I'm nervous," announced one as we spun down the current in our inflatable "ducky" kayaks. "I don't know how to paddle," cried another. All of them flipped at least once. At the storied "Swimming Hole" rapid, half a dozen opted for portage, saying, "No way, man."

But after the remaining seven survived the plunge, everybody carried their duckies back upriver and relaunched, their bright, plastic helmets vanishing in whirlpools and geysers. For an hour I watched as they shouted, swam, bobbed, and scampered up the steep banks- future advocates of Maine Woods National Park and Preserve, which (I probably should admit) doesn't exist yet.

In the flat stretches I lay back, looking at the green canopy rushing past, remembering my youth and thinking about the changes I had seen in Maine. I was not much older than the scouts when I'd worked at the Kennebec Log Driving Company, negotiating this water in a life jacket, stabbing mid-river jams with a peavey and hauling myself up onto them. I'd extract logs with increasing care until the whole jam would shudder and I'd leap back into the flow with an acre of surging pulpwood 20 feet behind me.

Until 1976 the public couldn't use rivers like the upper Kennebec because they were reserved for the paper industry as conduits to get logs to downriver mills, and it couldn't use the lower rivers either because effluent from the mills rendered the water a health hazard. At Indian Pond, where the scouts and I hauled out, and again at West Forks, where the river falls and spreads from a brawling run, the logs used to be corralled by booms in huge rafts that covered nearly every surface acre for the 35 miles to Solon. Driving along Route 201, you could smell the rafts with the windows closed-nothing woodsy, more reminiscent of an uncapped landfill.

Along the lower Kennebec, where the paper mills swilled logs and belched sulfurous bile, the odor took on a new character-basically boiled cabbage gone bad. On damp autumn mornings it used to drive me out of the grouse woods and back into classes at Colby College. In Waterville, just upstream from where I hunted ducks, the pulp logs reentered the river in their final, processed form-as toilet paper. When the flow dropped during off-peak generating periods, the gray strips hung from snags and alders like Spanish moss. And in summer, fish carcasses, silver bellies sunward, shot down the methane-charged current as prolifically and predictably as the Perseid meteors.

But in 1997, on the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, I floated the same section, spying mussels and smallmouth bass ten feet down and catching two-pound brown trout on dry flies. Environmentalists had gotten the log drives banned four years after President Nixon signed the act. To their horror, the response of the paper industry was to carve up the North Woods with about 25,000 miles of haul roads. Habitat became fragmented, and remote brook-trout ponds, shielded from a ravenous public by a morning's hike, were suddenly accessible by station wagon.

It is this sort of abuse that Maine Woods National Park and Preserve is designed to prevent. The dream was hatched by brash, in-your-face people from Concord, Massachusetts, who call themselves "RESTORE: The North Woods." For anyone who loves wild things and wild places and has watched the razing of the North Woods by multinational paper companies, it's the kind of dream you don't want to wake up from.

Protected would be the headwaters of six major rivers, including the Allagash, most of Moosehead Lake, hundreds of other lakes and ponds, and the hundred wildest miles of the Appalachian Trail. Park advocates, including the Sierra Club, have been distributing realistic National Park Service- style guides written as if the park/ preserve already exists; and scarcely a summer day passes without some tourist asking paper company pooh-bahs how to get to the national park. It drives them nuts.

As the park guide explains, hunting, trapping, and snowmobiling would be prohibited in the park, while whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and camping would be permitted. In the preserve-the size of which is yet to be determined-all existing recreation would continue.

The park proposal shook the conservative Pine Tree State. The "wise-use" crowd spewed rhetoric. "A wilderness forest produces nothing," proclaimed Robert Voight of the Maine Conservation Rights Institute. "Who is going to stop this enviro madness, this social revolution, this destitution of our great Constitution? The fire of tyranny is raging." Even some environmental groups talked up "traditional land uses" and warned about culture shock.

As a fund-raising tool, the park concept proved invaluable to the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine (SAM), which presumes to speak for hunters and fishermen but which more often speaks for property-rights zealots and the paper companies that help fund it. "Now we offer those frustrated [forest] workers and sportsmen a place to turn," wrote director George Smith. "We urge them to join SAM, and to join our battle to drive RESTORE back across the Kittery Bridge [to Massachusetts]. They can take their agenda someplace else. There is no place in Maine for a new national park."

For all the invective, though, creating a Maine Woods National Park and Preserve is not really such a radical idea. In fact, it isn't even a new idea. It was first proposed 146 years ago by a brash, in-your-face guy also from Concord who called for "national preserves where no villages need be destroyed, in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be 'civilized off the face of the earth.' " He was branded an extremist, a radical, a misanthrope. His name was Henry David Thoreau.

On a bitter February day I inspected Maine's "unorganized townships," roughly the northern half of the state and site of Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. My guide and pilot was Rudy Engholm-a member of Northern Wings, a regional group of volunteer pilots who show reporters, politicians, and resource managers the difference between what industry press releases say the earth looks like and what it really looks like. In this part of Maine there are no local governments and, often, no people. Just the holdings of multinational paper companies that, thanks to feeble state regulations, can essentially do whatever they like. In the last 15 years they've clearcut an area the size of Delaware, frequently blitzing pioneering hardwoods with herbicides.

North of the "beauty strip" of standing trees that circles Brassua Lake like tennis-ball fuzz, we intersected the edge of the Ragmuff clearcut-a circular swath with a diameter of about ten miles. Farther north, we picked up the 92-mile-long Allagash River, a national wild-and-scenic river managed as a "wilderness waterway" by the Maine Department of Conservation. No canoer should miss a week on the Allagash, but don't wander too far into the woods because there are only 500 feet of them on either side. Beyond the beauty strip, Maine's "working forest," as the paper industry likes to call it, is not just in bad shape; it's gone. For as far as we could see-into the haze of Canada-the bare, broken earth was veined with skidder trails and haul roads. "I burn wood," declared Engholm. "I'm not against cutting trees. But I believe there's a difference between a haircut and a scalping."

Still, there are vast areas of the North Woods that have healed and look fine. The most notable healed wilderness is 200,000-acre Baxter State Park, which Maine Governor Percival Baxter purchased for the public with his own money, starting with 5,960 acres in 1930. As Baxter learned, the one good thing about clearcutting is that it dramatically reduces the price of wildland. Scattered through the state park's reborn forests are more than 60 wild-trout ponds, about 100 miles of wild-trout streams, 185 miles of hiking trails, and 46 mountain peaks, 18 of them over 3,000 feet. The highest of these-at 5,267 feet-is Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. But even with the state park, Maine has the lowest proportion of publicly owned land of any state in the Northeast.

I think Baxter is at its best just after the warblers rustle back through the hardwoods and just before the legions of black flies shuck their larval exoskeletons and rise like coal smoke from forest rills. In recent years I have backpacked into the park twice, both times camping beside Russell Pond, shallow, circular, and strewn with moose and moose-size chunks of granite. The first spring a late snow spoiled the fishing, but the following year I could scarcely keep the brook trout off my hook. I fried them in bacon fat between blazing aspen and blazing stars, eating with my fingers, listening to the demonic cackling of barred owls and watching the smoke rise straight into the infinite northern night.

Governor Baxter was one in an endless procession of conservation-minded citizens before and since who have sought to control forest abuse in Maine. "In my travels in foreign lands I have seen beautiful great forests that for centuries have been producing a crop of wood without depletion," Baxter wrote the legislature in 1955. That year he donated 30,000 acres to the park for "scientifically controlled forestry." Logging "without depletion" was such a radical concept that the Maine Forest Service didn't get around to attempting it until 1983, at which time it began butchering the park's Scientific Forest Management Area with clearcutting, high-grading (cutting the good stuff and leaving the junk), and skidding entire trees to the roadside. A lawsuit by private citizens Charles Fitzgerald and Bill Butler turned out to be the only way to control the state's logging controllers.

Next the public demanded a state forest-practices act. What it got in 1991 supposedly controls clearcuts by restricting them to 250 acres. But if you leave more than 30 square feet of trees (measured at their bases), it doesn't count as a clearcut. That's the equivalent of laying a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood on a football field. A 1996 ballot initiative to ban clearcutting in the unorganized townships died after logging interests mounted a $12 million campaign against it.

As reform efforts fail, the trees keep crashing. South African Pulp and Paper Industries led in razing the state's forests for the last four years, simultaneously assuring the public that it is committed to long-term, high-yield silviculture. Then last October, the company sold 905,000 acres. The buyer: Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber, which has a reputation for rapacious logging that eclipses even its predecessor's and which enhances its profits by hawking lake and river frontage for subdivisions. Included in the sale were numerous remote ponds, undeveloped shoreline on Moosehead Lake, and extensive frontage along the still-wild Moose, Roach, and Kennebec rivers. With scant federal or state money available for land purchase and 70 million people living within an eight-hour drive, these holdings could easily fall into the clutches of developers.

In late October South Carolina-based Bowater sold a million acres to J. D. Irving, a Canadian firm. Irving not only removes forests by clearcutting, it permanently prevents their recovery by planting monocultures of cloned seedlings. The sale made Irving the biggest landowner in Maine.

With the ownership shuffle comes an increased threat of development. The state has granted permits for 5,000 houses and camps, many on formerly wild lakes and rivers, on land once owned by paper companies. Some 200,000 acres have been subdivided. More than half the lakeshore development since 1971 has occurred on the state's best wilderness lakes-ones it once declared to have "statewide significance."

Even if you consider dollars only, selling Maine's wildland to second-home developers is madness. "People come to the North Woods because it's undeveloped," remarks Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "If they hike or canoe in for a day and get to a lake, they don't want to see somebody's cottage." Tourism in Maine already generates more jobs than agriculture, forestry, and commercial fishing combined. Studies commissioned by RESTORE indicate that the proposed national park and preserve could bolster the state's economy with between $109 million and $435 million in annual retail sales and support 5,000 to 20,000 jobs.

In Rockwood, as on the upper Kennebec, I saw the real, lasting value of the Maine Woods. John Willard, who runs The Birches resort with his brother Bill and who hosted my whitewater trip with the scouts, hiked with me along mountain-bike and cross-country-ski trails carpeted with grass and ferns and shaded by a lush broadleaf canopy. The Birches cabins and tents are pretty much full through the summer and on winter weekends. Kayakers retracing Thoreau's course up Moosehead Lake from Mt. Kineo to North East Carry sleep in yurts strategically placed through The Birches' woods.

The next morning I retraced a little of Thoreau's course myself, alternately plowing into and surfing down Moosehead's gathering waves in one of The Birches' sea kayaks. Then, from the Rockwood marina, I caught the hourly Mt. Kineo shuttle-an antique Navy launch powered by a Perkins three-cylinder diesel and captained by the good-humored Paul McCourtney, an encyclopedia of natural and human history. Mt. Kineo, America's largest body of flint, juts 800 feet skyward from Moosehead's middle. Indians, drawn to the mountain as a source for knives and hunting points, claimed that it had been a celestial moose hurled to Earth in a fit of pique by the Great Spirit.

Climbing Indian Trail proved a mistake-not because it was steep, although it was, but because the couple who rode in the launch with me took the more level Warden Cabin route and reached the summit two minutes ahead of me. Therefore I missed the pair of peregrine falcons that buzzed them at the top of the fire tower.

The view consoled me-most of it anyway. I held the metal rail and, on all compass points, gazed out over 25 miles of the proposed Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. I saw white specks of boats trolling for deep-dwelling lake trout, shimmering bays and emerald islands, distant lakes silver and copper, beige clearcuts, green clearcuts, winding streams and straight logging roads, ridges stacked on ridges and darkening from blue to purple along Earth's hazy curve. Spruces creaked; the hysterical laughter of a pileated woodpecker drifted up from halfway down the mountain; and somewhere in the azure sky, too high for my eyes, a raven croaked.

Depending on who you listen to, creating a 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve in the best, wildest part of the East is politically impossible or just very difficult-as difficult, say, as making national parks and preserves in the California desert ten years ago. The opposition of Maine Independent Governor Angus King is a formidable roadblock. "I am dead set against the idea," he splutters. After spending two years telling its members about the horrific deficiencies of the park scheme, the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine collected 30,000 signatures against it. A similar effort by the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce resulted in a poll in which 178 of its 180 members expressed opposition. On the other hand, an independent statewide poll revealed 63 percent of Maine residents in favor.

On my last day in Maine I climbed Big Spencer Mountain in clear, T-shirt weather. I wasn't sure if the six ladders on the trail made the climb easier or constituted an attractive nuisance. With me were Jym St. Pierre, the lifelong Mainer who directs RESTORE, and Joan Saxe, the registered Maine guide who chairs the Sierra Club's Maine Chapter. Both are living rebuttals to the charge that park advocates are city people from away. "The Sierra Club helped create Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Kings Canyon, and the new parks in Alaska," Saxe said. "We're going to get a Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. Just watch."

From the 3,230-foot summit we inspected 2 million acres of the proposed park and preserve-Bowater holdings to the north, Plum Creek holdings to the south. To the east rose the gray tundra of Mt. Katahdin and the ragged shoulder of OJI Mountain, torn by landslides said to look like the letters of its name. Lakes stretched and curled in all directions-to the northeast, Ragged, Caribou, and Chesuncook; to the northwest, Lobster; to the southwest, Moosehead. Thirty miles to the north we could make out the blue pimple of Poland Mountain. Fifteen miles to the northwest a cloud of dust rose from the Golden Road, probably kicked up by a logging truck. At least from this spot and this elevation the scene had not visibly changed since Thoreau chronicled it from Katahdin: "There it was, the state of Maine. Immeasurable forest for the sun to shine on. No clearing, no house. It did not look as if a solitary traveler had cut so much as a walking stick there. Countless lakes-Moosehead . . . Chesuncook . . . Millinocket . . . and a hundred others without name; and mountains also. The forest looked like a firm grass sward, and the effect of these lakes in its midst has been well compared, by one who has since visited this same spot, to that of a 'mirror broken into a thousand fragments, and wildly scattered over the grass, reflecting the full blaze of the sun.' "

Munching mountain cranberries, we leaned back against moss-cloaked granite and gazed out at Maine's working forest.

"This could be yours," said Jym St. Pierre.


Ted Williams is a freelance writer who specializes in fish and wildlife. He wrote "Natural Allies," on environmentalists' relationship with hunters and anglers, in Sierra's September/October 1996 issue.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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