RESTORE: The North Woods on SAPPI Land Sale




In recent years we have seen an overwhelming outpouring of public concern in Maine about how our forests are treated. The problems are obvious. Poor forest practices, inappropriate development and unstable ownerships threaten the ecological integrity, traditional recreational access, economic viability and scenic beauty of Maine's North Woods wilderness.

It is clear that we need to do two things. First, we need to make sure that where logging is done it is ecologically and economically sustainable. The latest statistics released recently by the Maine Forest Service demonstrate that logging in Maine is not being done sustainably and that we continue to lose our wild forests.

Second, we need to protect more special areas from logging. Our organization has put forth a specific proposal to address that. We have an extraordinary chance to create a 3.2 million acre Maine Woods National Park to preserve the environment and diversify the economy of a big part of northern Maine to benefit the public.

The announcement that the State will have a chance to buy no-development easements on the east shore of Moosehead and along part of the Kennebec River from Sappi as well as on the north shore of Flagstaff Lake from Plum Creek sounds good. However, at this point, the deal appears to be only half-baked. There remain a lot of crucial questions. For instance, we do not know if the deal will be consummated, how many millions of dollars it will cost, the particular restrictions which would be in the easements, why it includes only two one-hundredths of one percent of the Sappi lands, or whether the State will be able to come up with the funds to repay The Nature Conservancy, which has agreed to provide bridge financing, if the details can be worked out.

At most the State will buy a thin working forest beauty strip. That still leaves us with the lowest proportion of publicly protected land of any state in the Northeast. That still leaves the "protected" shorelands open to damaging logging. That still leaves dozens of miles on Moosehead and hundreds of miles of developable shoreline on other remote lakes, ponds and rivers at risk. That is a big concern, since Plum Creek, the buyer, has a history of liquidation logging and subdivision and development of prime shorelands. If they do that in Maine, the public will be the big loser. In addition, the premature timing of this announcement is strange. It will make it much harder for The Nature Conservancy and the State to negotiate the lowest price, because now they are publicly committed to buying these easements whatever the cost. Some think that the Governor's unveiling of a possible North Woods conservation deal a month before the elections is a campaign event.

Whatever the motivations, the acquisition by the State of Maine of easements on a few thousand acres may be a useful interim step to partially protect some shorelands. However, it is far short of what needs to be done to protect the full range of public values at risk on a landscape scale. The State clearly is not up to that task.

If there is reason for optimism here, it is that the game is not over. The sale of 905,000 acres by Sappi to Plum Creek Timber Company will provide additional opportunities to bring back into the public domain some of the most important lands in the Maine Woods. If they treat Maine like the other states where they operate, Plum Creek is likely to be interested in reselling a lot of the lands they are purchasing here. The likely sale of large tracts by other major landowners, such as Bowater and International Paper Company, is also on the horizon. We can still restore to the public domain lands of national significance. But it will not happen without a clear goal and a bold plan.

Our organization will continue to try to work with anyone interested in achieving permanent protection of more of these lands in the heart of the Maine Woods. Only if citizens speak out will our local, state and national officials really understand the profound importance of fully preserving the public trust which our Maine Woods wilderness heritage represents. The idea of creating America's next great national park in the Maine Woods is looking better all the time.


Jym St. Pierre is Maine Director of RESTORE: The North Woods.