Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The Maine Woods: A National Treasure in Need of National Protection

Henry David Thoreau, in The Maine Woods (1864), called for the creation of “national preserves.” In 1911, a bill to establish a Maine Woods National Park went nowhere.

In 1994, RESTORE: The North Woods first proposed a 3.2 million-acre national park and preserve, which would be twice the size of Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks combined. While Maine is large enough to encompass such a park, most Mainers are not visionary enough to yet embrace this splendid idea.

A very modest 75,000-acre national park and equal-sized national recreation area is proposed for lands east of Baxter State Park and is gaining political traction, being supported by the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Bangor Daily News, Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, the Bangor City Council, Maine Innkeepers Association, Katahdin Area Rotary Club and over 200 businesses. Two-thirds of voters in Maine’s 2nd congressional district support such a national park and recreation area, a district represented by a Republican. Maine’s other congressional district, represented by a Democrat, probably has even greater support. The state’s two senators say they could support a national park—if there is adequate “local” support.

Though there is overwhelming statewide political support, there is still some intense local opposition. Elected officials often pretend to lead, but actually they mostly follow. A vociferous minority can long delay—but rarely prevent—change.

Maine’s largest state park and only national park exist today only because a few rich people spent wisely—initially against the intense hostility of some local residents.

Maine’s 53rd Governor (1921-1925) Percival Proctor Baxter (1876-1969) failed to convince the Maine Legislature to establish a state park to encompass Katahdin, the state’s highest point. Baxter then bought 6,000 acres for $25,000 and then gave it to the people of Maine with the deed restriction that the land “shall forever be used for public park and recreational purposes, shall be forever left in the natural wild state, shall forever be kept as a sanctuary for wild beasts and birds, that no road or ways for motor vehicles shall hereafter ever be constructed thereon or therein." The park was named in his honor in 1931. In all, Baxter gifted 28 deeds making the park today 209,501 acres. He also gave a $7 million endowment. The highest knob on Katahdin is Baxter Peak.

Concerned about development around Bar Harbor and the invention of a gasoline-powered portable sawmill, textile fortune heir George Buckman Dorr sought to protect Mount Desert and other nearby islands. In 1916, President Wilson established a 5,000-acre Sieur de Monts National Monument, which was the embroyo of the now 47,000-acre Acadia National Park.

As National Geographic noted at the time, “Through the patriotism and generosity of the owners, known collectively as the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations, they were presented to the United States for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.” Dorr was most major of the “trustees” and later became first park’s first superintendent.

John Davison Rockefeller, Jr. also bought much land for Acadia—as he later acquired lands that are now in the Grand Teton National Park (née National Monument).

Comes now Mainers Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt’s Bees, and her son Lucas St. Clair who want to express their patriotism and generosity by presenting their 87,500 acres of Maine Woods—valued at $60 million, along with a $40 million endowment—to the United States for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.

Before these patriots will convey their land to the National Park Service, there must be a federal protective framework in place. In 1906, Congress granted the President the power to proclaim national monuments to protect objects of historic and scientific interest on federal land. President Obama should establish a Maine Woods National Monument.

Having been logged so often, the forests of Maine are much shorter than they once were. Standing in front the L.L. Bean store in Freeport and gazing south across Main Street you’ll notice the buildings are set back to create an extra wide intersection of Main and Bow streets. This was to allow wagons to make the turn as they hauled massive eastern white pine logs destined for ship masts down Bow Street to Mast Landing at the head of tide of the Harraseeket River.

Today Maine’s longest log could roll down Bow Street crossways and not endanger any tourists visiting the North Face, Tommy Hilfiger and Patagonia outlets on one sidewalk or the J. Crew and Brooks Brothers outlets on the other.

Pulp has passed. Forests are more valuable for watershed, habitat and recreation than for wood or development. The Maine Woods are no longer mainly for wood.

A Maine Woods National Monument would be the embryo of a Maine Woods National Park that could grow in size and allow the trees to again grow as tall as they used to.

UPDATE: On August 23, 2016, President Obama proclaimed an 87,500-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.