Moosehead Lake is one of Maine’s natural treasures. Ever since Plum Creek, the Moosehead area’s largest landowner, unveiled its long-term plan for its holdings around the lake, arguments have raged over the lake’s future.
The company’s original proposal to the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC, the planning and zoning authority for the state’s townships, plantations, and unorganized areas) for its holdings of more than 400,000 acres around Moosehead Lake included only 11,000 acres of permanently conserved land and placed 382,000 acres in a 30-year no-development zone. The public reacted strongly against the small amount of permanent conservation, development in the backcountry, and the lack of guarantees for public access. In response, the Forest Society of Maine (FSM), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), and others began talks with Plum Creek. After many in-depth discussions, Plum Creek has come forward with a new proposal that includes significant additions and improvements.
As executive director of FSM, I believe that in its current form, Plum Creek’s concept plan presents an extraordinary opportunity for conservation, and it is extremely important for Maine’s citizens to understand these changes and this opportunity.
The amount of land proposed for permanent protection has increased from 11,000 acres to 431,000 acres, and that represents 94 percent of the total plan area (compared to 2.5 percent originally). Most of the land will be protected with conservation easements; in addition, they will sell two tracts of high conservation value, totaling about 75,000 acres, for conservation purposes. On the conserved lands, there will be two easements, each with similar, strong terms: a 90,000-acre easement contributed by Plum Creek as a “balance” to the proposed development, and a 266,000-acre easement acquired jointly by TNC, FSM, and AMC. Terms of the easements have improved significantly, as well. They guarantee public access and recreation, protect fish and wildlife habitats and other ecological values, protect archaeological and historic sites, and assure sustainable forestry.
Development also has been ruled out for the far reaches of Plum Creek’s land, concentrating it near existing development, thus addressing concerns over sprawl. The easement lands will surround and permanently contain the development area, while protecting the natural resource values, remoteness, and opportunities for recreation that exist now.
The choices made in relocating the proposed development maintain the region’s special character and largely avoid negative impacts to natural resources. We at FSM recognize the need to minimize the impacts of any development and are confident that the natural resources within and near the proposed development areas will be protected through LURC’s final decision and subsequent site-plan reviews.
The conservation benefits of the revised plan are especially noteworthy in a broad, regional context. The 431,000 acres proposed for protection connect with existing conservation lands to form a two-million-acre network of conserved lands stretching across Maine’s North Woods, linking the St. John River, Moosehead Lake, and Baxter State Park. This expansive conservation landscape would provide unparalleled recreational opportunities as well as benefits to fish and wildlife, including Canada lynx, brook trout, and pine marten, and a sustainable source of timber products.
LURC requires applicants to include conservation as part of concept plan proposals. When submitting their original application to LURC in 2005, Plum Creek asked FSM to be the easement holder because of our conservation experience in the Moosehead Lake region. We responded that we would be interested in holding easements arising from LURC’s decision, but we would reserve our decision until after the easements were made final, and we would expect to work with LURC and the applicant in developing the easement terms and overall conservation outcomes.
We have been doing just that quietly for two and a half years, without public fanfare, and we can report that the current proposal offers a unique opportunity to bring permanent conservation to a huge tract of land in a manner that will sustain the values, traditions, and character of the region.
The Forest Society of Maine was created to serve as Maine’s land trust for the North Woods. We oversee more than 600,000 acres of conserved land, and our projects have protected large tracts of forests, lakes, rivers, and mountains, protecting fish and wildlife habitats, rare and endangered species, and recreational traditions while ensuring sustainable forestry. We have a long-standing interest in the future of the Moosehead Lake region, working with Greenville and other communities to help maintain the region’s special nature.
The real choice before LURC is between planned growth with significant conservation or unplanned, sprawling growth with little conservation. The choice is not between the Plum Creek proposal and no further development in the Moosehead region. Growth and development are upon us, whether you consider that good or bad. The proposal before LURC offers the planned approach with all attending benefits, including large-scale, permanent conservation. The alternative is the continued fragmentation of forestland and sprawling, piecemeal development of the Moosehead Lake region.
The current proposal, in its much-improved form, presents an historic opportunity we do not see becoming available again to protect a huge tract of land with immense conservation and recreational value. It is an opportunity that must not be missed.
Alan Hutchinson is executive director of the Forest Society of Maine.