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The Maine Woods

by Bill McKibben
Holiday 2002

The North Woods of Maine offers the country's greatest conservation paradox. On the one hand, it's ten million acres where no one lives, unless you count lynx, eagle, moose. The Allagash River winds through this land, one of the wildest paddles this side of Alaska. The end-to-enders on the Appalachian Trail stagger toward their goal, majestic Mt. Katahdin rising to the east. A picture of the world as once it was.

But if almost no one may live there overnight, during the day they make up for it. The absentee landlords, paper companies from South Africa and Alabama and New Brunswick that trade vast fiefdoms among themselves, have relentlessly manhandled the woods: millions of acres have been sprayed with herbicides, and wide roads have been cut to speed log trucks on the way to market. From the air it's an endless jigsaw puzzle of clearcuts marching up and down the rolling mountains. That Allagash corridor is wild as hell unless you walk more than a quarter mile from the river to take a leak, whereupon you emerge blinking into the clear-cut desert. A picture of the world as it sadly is - one more uglified entry on the international profit-maximizing atlas, another British Columbia or Brazil or Borneo.

Ten years ago, an upstart environmental group called RESTORE: The North Woods proposed a way to square this circle. Since the land was still unsettled, still in the hands of a few huge firms, its destiny was not yet set the way it would be by development. Why not, they said, take 3.2 million acres and make it a national park? Why not make a park as big as Yellowstone and Yosemite combined, a park big enough for the wolf and the cougar and the caribou and the wolverine to rejoin the bear and broad-winged hawk, the loon and the beaver?

Why not? Well, local residents had a variety of answers, beginning with: Who the hell are you outside environmentalists to tell us to change? Which makes a certain amount of sense.

Except that outside multinational corporations have been controlling this land for a long time. As they've made their operations "more efficient", the number of jobs has plummeted even as the cut has gotten bigger. Except that the "traditional way of life" – hunting and snowmobiling on the paper company land – is an insecure privilege, not the right that it would be were the land to become public property. The no-trespassing signs cover more and more of Maine, and worse are the for-sale signs – the prime lakeshore that, once sold off for development, will never be open to regular folk again. In the words of economist Thomas Power, who conducted a massive analysis of the proposed park's impact, most people in the region would likely "choose a future similar to the past." But that future's not on offer; only a dismal slide, with logging jobs expected to drop 30 percent a decade for the foreseeable future.

About the Author
Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature and Enough, a forthcoming book on human genetic engineering and other emerging technologies. A visiting scholar at Middlebury College, he writes regularly for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Outside, The New York Review of Books and other national publications.