A missing piece

President Obama’s designation of 87,000 acres of land donated by philanthropist Roxanne Quimby east of Baxter State Park as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument last week continues a long tradition of land conservation in Maine.

Nearly 20 percent of all land in the state is now protected, either owned by state, local and federal governments (some 1.75 million acres) or by conservation groups in fee simple or easements (about 2 million acres). That doesn’t include hundreds of thousands more acres in private hands in tree-growth or open-space designation.

There is no question that Maine has been successful at preserving the lands and waters of our state. But a piece is missing still from the larger conservation picture.

As manifest in some of the opposition to the arrival of the federal government in the Katahdin area, many residents of that area are mourning what the designation means to their way of life – a way of life that in many respects they have been powerless to protect for generations.

The nearly absolute control of the North Maine Woods by large landowners and paper companies left multiple generations of permanent residents there voiceless about their own future. Acquiescence was, in effect, purchased with economic prosperity and the lure of good-paying jobs in the mills, as well as with relatively free public access to millions of acres of private lands.

With the dismemberment of the paper industry at the hands of hedge funds and rogue capitalists disinterested in their operation, that quid pro quo no longer exists. Residents had been left to suffer at the whim of wealthy landowners and distantly-headquartered conservation groups that often prohibited traditional activities in the most popular locations.

And now they must subjugate themselves to a new master, the federal government.

What all this suggests is that while we have been enormously successful at saving land, most parties to these transactions have ignored, or dismissed even, the interests of the people who are just as much a part of the fabric and landscape as are the woods and waters.

What is needed is an organization dedicated to celebrating, preserving and documenting the history, traditions and way of life of the people who call that area home. Numerous small historical societies in Northern Maine struggle to do that on their own. Nowhere is there an organization that makes preserving a record of a way of life a top priority.

Perhaps then it is time to devote equal energy and intellect to establishing a North Woods Cultural Trust. Things are changing rapidly in northern Maine. For all that is being gained, much is being lost. It’s time the people of that part of Maine begin to see that the powerful interests that control their destiny care as much about them, their history, their traditions, their way of life, as they do the forests, mountains, lakes and rivers.

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