Perhaps the closest thing we have to wilderness in New England is the vast forest overspreading much of inland central and northern Maine. It is rugged, mountainous land thick with spruce and fir, laced with clear streams and rivers and dotted with deep, cold lakes. Here you will find birds like the no-longer-common common loon and the spruce grouse, along with abundant moose. Much of this forest is five or more hours driving time from metropolitan New England, so you might assume it will stay what it is: trees, water and wildlife.
Unfortunately, no. Long drive or not, the appeal of pristine waterfront property is powerful. Meanwhile, the economics of the forest products industry changed over the past two decades. As demand for weekend homes accelerated, even in these remote areas, large timber products companies discovered that the waterfront properties within their vast holdings are worth far more as residential real estate than as a platform for growing trees for pulp. So the pressure is on, and it is an issue, at least in Maine. It ought to be an issue taken far more seriously in the rest of the region. This is in effect New England’s last frontier. Must every inch of waterfront be seen through a window?
Strange then, that an announcement a few days ago from the Appalachian Mountain Club received so little attention.
The AMC bought a 29,500-acre parcel of land – a genuine missing link – that creates a 63-mile corridor of conservation land stretching from a point near Greenville, a small town at the southern end of Moosehead Lake, all the way to Baxter State Park, itself a massive holding permanently set aside as wild land that includes mile-high Mount Katahdin.
This newly acquired parcel, known as the Roach Ponds Tract, is bounded to the north by state of Maine land, and to the south by another large AMC-owned property, the Katahdin Iron Works Tract, which is 37,000 acres. Those properties, along with others owned by The Nature Conservancy and the state are within an area known as the 100-Mile-Wilderness, a recreational playground for those who cherish nature as it wants to be. The new purchase provides a 20-mile buffer of deep forest for a section of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, which passes through the 100-Mile-Wilderness.
Central and northern Maine forests are regularly logged by the paper products companies, and much of the area has been working forest for the better part of two centuries. They were cutting trees in Maine’s north woods when Henry David Thoreau visited in the mid-19th Century. But even with the industrial cutting, these forests are about as close to pristine wilderness on any large scale as you will find in New England.
To give you an idea: In heavily developed southern New England, a day of heavy rain typically causes streams and rivers to rise rapidly with runoff from cultivated and paved surfaces. Streams that flow clear in dry weather are murky for days after. The Roach Ponds Tract includes the upper reaches of the West Branch of the Pleasant River, as unspoiled a stream as you can expect to find in New England. Its banks are forested, its waters clear. It holds wild, native brook trout and the native shiner, the fallfish, and that is about it. What happens after big rain? The West Branch of the Pleasant River might rise 6 inches overnight. But it won’t be raging. It will flow clear as it does every other day. I’ve seen it. The West Branch is buffered – protected – by thousands of acres of forest, like streams were centuries ago.
The Roach Ponds Tract was purchased for $11.5 million from Plum Creek Timber Co. Inc., all from private sources, no public money involved. It is hard to imagine how this purchase will not be increasingly appreciated as the decades go on. It always seems to be that way with conservation lands. Look at the national parks.
Plum Creek, however, happens to be the same corporation behind a massive residential development project planned for the shores of Moosehead Lake, one of Maine’s biggest lakes with many miles of wild shoreline. It is a stone’s throw from the Roach Ponds Tract. Plum Creek plans three resorts and more than 2,000 residential units around Moosehead. Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission approved that development last month. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, long a critic of the Plum Creek development, already has appealed that decision to the Maine Superior Court.