AUGUSTA — Supporters of a bill to ban development on 4 million acres in the North Woods say the vast, undeveloped landscape is a national treasure that must be protected against greedy landowners who would spoil it by selling camp lots on its most majestic lakes and mountains.
Opponents say the proposal is the first step in ending traditional uses of the forest and converting it to a playground for rich out-of-staters.
On Wednesday, more than 200 people gathered at the Augusta Elks Club to give testimony on the bill, LD 1198, called “An Act to Protect Maine’s Wildlands.”
“Maine has only one North Woods,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Shiah, D-Bowdoinham. “It is irreplaceable, and without restrictions [on development] it is destined to disappear.”
Shiah told members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee that his bill was needed because the Land Use Regulation Commission had failed to provide for adequate protection of the North Woods in its recently revised comprehensive land-use plan.
LD 1198 would prohibit the construction of new residential or commercial structures in five areas: the Down East lakes region, about 1.1 million acres in Washington and Hancock counties; Greater Baxter State Park, 1.3 million acres surrounding the existing park; the upper St. John River valley, 1 million acres along the St. John on the Quebec border; the western mountains, 730,000 acres between Rangeley and Jackman; and the Androscoggin River headwaters, 400,000 acres along the New Hampshire border.
The bill would give LURC the power to draw “green lines” to establish the boundaries of each wildland area. Inside the lines, the commission could permit the construction only of buildings used for forest management, primitive recreation, commercial sporting camps or expansions of existing residential structures.
LURC, however, wants no part of the bill. The commission unanimously voted to oppose it, according to John Williams, director of LURC.
“[LD 1198] would put nearly half of the acreage [in the unorganized territories] off-limits to nearly all development,” he said.
According to Williams, the new LURC plan offers a much better approach. The commission will work to steer development toward the settled fringes of the jurisdiction, he said, and work with landowners to limit growth in the interior.
“I don’t think we failed [to protect the wildlands] at all,” Williams said. “It’s a balanced plan, fair and equitable.”
Supporters of the bill, however, don’t believe LURC’s plan will preserve the wild character of the North Woods. If that character is lost, Maine will have sacrificed an important part of its cultural heritage, according to Dean Bennett of Mount Vernon, author of several books on the state’s wildlands.
“We need to keep alive a few places where our children and grandchildren might have a glimpse of the wilderness their ancestors faced,” said Bennett.
Maybe so, but Maine residents won’t be the folks who benefit if Shiah’s bill becomes law, according to Mary Adams of Common Sense for Maine Forests. The group opposes more government regulation of forestry and land use.
“[LD 1198] would end the tradition of leases in the North Woods for hunting and fishing,” Adams said. “[Environmental groups that support the measure] are promoting a fantasy wilderness for their wealthy, out-of-state supporters.”
But Suzanne Hedrick of Augusta said Mainers’ traditional access to the back country already is being restricted by landowners from away. “It’s a loss of our roots and heritage,” Hedrick told the committee. “If we continue to allow unrestricted sale and development, our children will have lost their birthright.”
Added Hedrick: “This is still God’s country. Why sell it off to the greediest land speculator and make it look like New Jersey?”
Jim Robbins, vice president of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont, was unmoved by supporters of the bill. He said it was incredibly arrogant to strip development rights from landowners on more than 4 million acres and not offer them compensation.
“That’s an area equal to Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined,” said Robbins. “Just try going down to those states, pulling that off and see how they like it.”
Robbins said the passage of Shiah’s bill would make it more likely that a new national park would be located in northern Maine. Environmental groups that support the park say the land would be acquired only from willing sellers.
“If they stop us from harvesting trees and we can’t develop [the land], I guess we’d be willing sellers,” said Robbins.