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Maine Woods National Park

BY HEIDI RIDGLEY

JON LUOMA couldn’t believe his eyes while canoeing around a bend on Maine’s Saint John River last spring, but there they stood—sort of: two moose calves, only hours old and still on their knees right in front of him, struggling to straighten their spindly legs. “I’d seen young moose calves walking around and eating leaves with their mothers before,” says Luoma. “But in the 30 years I’ve been coming here, it was the first time I’d ever seen anything like this.”

Welcome to the North Woods, the last great wilderness east of the Mississippi, a world of jaw-dropping wildlife encounters and staggering scenery. It’s here that loons dive for crayfish on a pond near Moosehead Lake, where the breaking sun backlights groves of stately trees, and clouds of golden mist float above crystal ponds and lakes at dawn. Fish jump, owls hoot, coyotes croon, and moose still outnumber people amid an endless expanse of rolling woodland that, increasingly, is dotted with “No Trespassing” signs.

For more than 150 years some 10 million acres in Maine—half of the land in the state—rested in the hands of paper barons who shared an unwritten covenant with the people of Maine: Let us chop down all the trees we please, and we’ll guarantee you open access to hike, hunt, and fish. That changed drastically when paper companies, facing global competition in recent years, began shedding their vast kingdom to improve their bottom line, putting more and more land into the hands of foreign companies, investment firms, and real estate developers.

So much land has changed hands in recent years that some people believe if permanent land protection isn’t in place soon, the last vestige of what was once an unbroken swath stretching from Maine to the Midwest will drown in a sea of subdivisions and shopping malls that have already claimed much of the East Coast. There’s also a fear that the new breed of landowners might want to limit the privilege of hunting, hiking, or snowmobiling on their private expanses to friends and family or exclude outsiders altogether.

One solution to the land grab is an ambitious scheme to turn a sizeable portion into a national park. (For details on that process, see "Q&A"). The proposed 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve would secure an area larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. Surrounding Baxter State Park, it would encompass the Hundred Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail, protect cold-water lakes for brook trout, and safeguard thousands of miles of clear-running streams and rivers, including the headwaters of five of the region’s most legendary—the Allagash, Aroostook, Kennebec, Penobscot and St. John. And, of course, all this land would provide unfragmented habitat for iconic animals such as bears, panthers, wolves, elk and moose, as well as imperiled species such as lynx, Atlantic salmon, and spruce grouse. Surprisingly, it’s all in the backyard of one of the country’s most densely populated regions.

“Northern Maine has sort of been forgotten in the last hundred years,” says Luoma, an avid North Woods canoeist and 30-year resident of Maine. “Now, suddenly, with so much of the timber companies’ land up for grabs, it’s back in play.”

According to most polls, a majority of Maine residents would like to see Congress designate part of the enormous area as a national park. But it would have to happen soon, while the land is still affordable. “Development is causing property prices to skyrocket,” says Luoma. “If something isn’t done now, the North Woods will be fragmented forever.”

But not everyone in Maine favors the park—even those who regularly retreat into the remote expanse have their reservations. In fact, some are downright hostile to the idea.

“Hold on,” says Robert Meyers, president of Maine’s Snowmobile Association, when asked for his thoughts. “Let me switch to another phone. I might start yelling.” Although Meyers was joking about the shouting, he’s dead serious when he says that a national park in Maine amounts to a federal takeover. “If the government steps in, it’ll start limiting access to the forest for hunting and snowmobiling,” he says. “The developers and companies that hold the land right now manage it for all recreation, not just hiking and kayaking. It’s actually the conservation buyers we have to worry about. They tend to think they know better than we do, and everything they do is geared toward limited access.”

Although he doesn’t mention anyone by name, it’s obvious he’s talking about Roxanne Quimby, a multimillionaire who made a small fortune with the all-natural Burt’s Bees cosmetic line and started using her new-found wealth to buy sweeping portions of Maine’s wild lands about five years ago to ensure their permanent protection (see sidebar).

Until recently, Quimby had hoped to donate the 50,000 acres of contiguous land she now owns—the equivalent of Acadia National Park—to the National Park Service as part of the 3.2-million-acre planned park. But when arguments against the park turned into personal attacks against her, she decided to quietly bow out of the debate for now, though her hopes for the land remain intact. “The people who oppose the park because they think it will impede their access to land don’t seem to understand that the alternative to public property is private property,” says Quimby.

They also seem to focus only on the “park” part of the Maine Woods Na-tional Park and Preserve. According to the proposal, the park would prohibit hunting, trapping, and snowmobiling, but in the preserve—size to be determined—all existing recreation would continue.