Boston Globe Editorial on Maine Woods National Park

This story ran on page A25 of the Boston Globe on 08/19/98.
©Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.

Maine already is a national park. This is not a preemptive judgment against bringing in rangers, visitor centers, the brown road signs, and entry fees. It is just that since Maine is already The Way Life Should Be, it can be thoughtful about the way the future ought to be.


New debate over the future of the forests and wilderness of Maine was sparked this summer when South African Pulp and Paper Industries Ltd. put 911,000 acres of land up for sale. Another company, Bowater, is considering selling about 2 million acres.


Thus the state could be seeing the sale of 5 to 15 percent of its land in the near future. Timber companies own almost all of the northern half of Maine. Of the 17.7 million acres of forest charted by the federal government in Maine, between 7.3 million and 10.4 million acres are owned by forest industry interests.


For decades this was not much of an issue. Outside of periodic concerns over clear-cutting, timber companies made far more friends than enemies by providing jobs and allowing free access to their lands for hunting, fishing, boating, snowmobiling, cycling, and trapping.


But the number of forest industry jobs has fallen by half since 1960, from one in 11 Mainers to one in 23 today. Global timber companies have become more fickle. South African Pulp and Paper had purchased its 911,000 acres from another company only four years ago. Now it says it wants to sell its land as one unit to a firm that will still log the land and send the wood to its mills in South Africa.


But since some of its land is on beautiful Moosehead Lake in the center of the state, Governor Angus King has made a bid to purchase reportedly up to 200,000 of the most valuable acres, including the lands around the lake, to protect it from commercial development.


Hard-line activists say that is a good start but a pittance. One organization, Restore the North Woods, wants 3.2 million acres of Maine forest, including Moosehead, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, and lands around Baxter State Park to be turned into a Maine Woods National Park.


Its director, Jym St. Pierre, has called the land ``the most important 3 million acres for sale in the United States today, in terms of wildlands.''


Having camped in Baxter and having moose and deer come right up to your cabin, I offer no disagreement there. The idea of a vast national park offers a reflexive appeal of knowing the woods would have the highest level of protection.


The political problem for St. Pierre is that the woods - in fact, most of the state - exude bountiful, easily accessible natural beauty amid the familiar paternalism of the paper companies. Moose are seen in bogs and off dirt roadways - some of them paved by Big Timber - almost as easily in Maine as bison and elk are sighted in Yellowstone.


The vistas from Katahdin and other mountains are as grand as any in the nation. Away from the cacophony of political rhetoric, Maine is a place where snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, seemingly polar opposites, share trails and a place where bird-watchers and hikers enjoy lands in spring that become prime deer hunting grounds in the fall.


Even outside of the 3.2 million acres targeted for a national park, Maine is a place where bald eagles can be seen along the coast and on some inland lakes. Puffins have been restored to rocky ocean islands. Despite their timid nature, I have seen bears both this summer and last in Maine's White Mountains. The Way Life Has Been has easily been good enough to lull the visitor into a bliss frankly felt far easier here than in the Manhattanish mania that Yosemite Valley, the rim of the Grand Canyon, and the roads of Yellowstone have become in summer.


Lulled too has been Governor King, who has thus far gone with the timber companies to reject any notion of a national park.


Most newspapers in the state approve of King's attempt to acquire the small acreage around Moosehead, but the park proposal has yet to be taken seriously. Though Percival Baxter is one of the state's greatest heroes for purchasing the lands that became Baxter State Park, no one with wealth or political muscle feels any immediate need to claim Baxter's legacy.


A national park would preserve the woods in a way no timber company would. But the concerns of locals - who are used to timber jobs and activities on timber lands with virtually no restrictions and virtually no people - will dampen any proposal that smacks of elitism.


Unless a creative solution is found, a national park will easily be seen as the enemy. By the single act of imposing an entry fee, a national park means the Way Life Shouldn't Be.


Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe columnist.