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.
And so, increasingly, people are listening to the park's proponents. The arguments are hard to refute. In other parts of the country, people living on the edges of national parks have seen the number of jobs grow at three times the national average, and real income increase at double the national pace. Part of that is tourism, of course – a tourism that in a few places has gotten out of hand, creating "gateway communities" that no sane person would want to inhabit. But other places have managed to control the vacation growth, and found that the biggest economic boom came from people relocating to the area simply to be near the trees and mountains and water, people who brought with them small companies, good jobs, the chance for communities that are withering away to find new life. National parks, wrote Power, have often provided a "crucial economic bridge to a new, more diverse, economic base." Not everyone is convinced, but better answers are in short supply. If you read the increasingly respectful editorials in the Maine papers, it's hard not to think that sooner or later the sheer logic of the plan will eventually carry the day.
And when it does? Then the fun begins. The long slow and immensely heartening recovery of these lands can commence. Suddenly these forests aren't pulp on the stump, they're future old-growth. A couple of hundred miles to the west you'll find the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, at six million acres the other real chunk of green on the eastern map. A century ago it looked an awful lot like the Maine Woods does today; cut over, its towns declining, its wildlife in rough shape. Now, after a hundred years of tough state protection, its local economies work a lot better than rural Maine's. And its woods and swamps and beaver-meadows, its fens and rivers and lakes – they are the Alaska of ecological recovery. Wrecked is not forever, not where there's rain enough, not where people back off a bit.
Eventually, there's no substitute for Congress ponying up the cash to buy the land – at under $300 an acre, it's not prohibitive. But while public support is slowly building, RESTORE: The North Woods has helped jumpstart the process by finding private buyers for a few key tracts. Roxanne Quimby, owner of Burt's Bee's lip balm, has been purchasing thousands of acres with the park in mind. Meanwhile, the work of changing hearts and minds continues. RESTORE – one of the most creative environmental groups in the country – even operates a pretend visitors center for the as-yet nonexistent park, complete with maps and nature guides.
If and when the park comes into being, it will be as exciting a moment as the creation of Yellowstone, and because of what it means about our desire not just to protect but to restore the wild. Three million acres is big. The Maine Woods National Park is big hope.