High Peaks Initiative

See MATLT.org for more information on the High Peaks initiative.

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Op-Ed January 7, 2009. Search Archives

The High Peaks Initiative 

A major land conservation effort is taking place right in our back yard, one that is win-win for all of us, the High Peaks Initiative.

The High Peaks region of Maine is where we live: the area bounded by Kingfield, Carrabassett Valley, Stratton, Rangeley and Phillips. This spectacular 200,000-acre expanse includes eight of Maine’s 12 4,000-foot peaks. But it is not just the ridgeline that makes this area unique. Its streams are home to brook trout and some waters may be seeing the rebirth of Atlantic salmon populations. The larger mammals of the region are well known —bear, moose, deer, lynx and bobcats— and how many of us catch the songs and colors of spring bird migrations?

And the High Peaks region’s slopes and valleys are also home to a vital working forest that supports both our forestry and tourist economies. Because it benefits so many, the High Peaks Initiative has attracted the support of numerous local organizations —hikers, snowmobilers, ATVers, ski-areas and economic development groups– which seek to protect traditional recreation and forestry in our region.

Land conservation has always been a touchy issue in Maine. In a state that prides itself on individual rights and responsibilities, public meddling in issues of private land has never been popular. However, as we shall see, the old ways of land management are rapidly changing and this calls for new thinking if we are going to keep what we cherish.

When I came to the state in 1982, roughly 60 percent of all land parcels larger than 5,000 acres were held by pulp and paper companies. By 2005 that percentage had dropped to 15 percent. Given the high profile of companies like International Paper, Boise and others in those days, who would believe they would virtually disappear as landowners in Maine by the turn of the century? As the returns from real estate outstripped those from timberland management the paper companies one by one sold their holdings to real estate brokers, land managers and investment trusts which now collectively own 33 percent of Maine’s forestlands. Plum Creek, a Real Estate Investment Trust, leads the pack with 900,000 acres. The major paper company still holding land is Irving Paper, a Canadian company.

This enormous change in land ownership has changed the very ground we walk on. As we have seen, especially in western Maine, second-home acquisition and development have exploded as the real estate brokers turn around and subdivide the holdings they have bought. More and more roads that were once open to the public are now gated, and this is just the beginning of the trend of shuttering these quasi-public lands.

Equally important, these lands are being taken out of effective forestry management through their fragmentation as parcels. It takes large-scale acreage to make effective timber management practices such as thinning and replanting efficient and effective. The acreages where these are practiced have declined by 60 percent in the last 15 years. Although we are now in a downturn, when the economy returns so will the demand for pulp. And without question, there will be an increasing demand for fuel-wood in our energy future. These are two markets we cannot afford to loose, but we might.

Finally, there is tourism. Except for the coast, Maine’s tourism growth has been relatively flat in recent years. A case in point is our ski industry. Ski industry growth in the past decade has been sluggish, especially in the Northeast where the weather can be uncooperative while ski industry costs for snowmaking and insurance continue to climb steeply. For the consumer, a plane ticket out west can guarantee powder for a price comparable to a less predictable week of skiing closer to home. Add to that the likely effects of global warming and you have a reason to be nervous.

But skiing is just the start of what is here. We have world class hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Our ITS trail system is the envy of many states whose residents flock here for their snowmobiling. And our ATV network, while in its early stages, shows similar promise. And Franklin County has the landscape to do it in, 200,000 acres of it.

We have eight of Maine’s 14 4,000-foot mountains right in our backyard, roughly in the rectangle formed by the towns of Kingfield, Stratton, Rangeley and Phillips. The region might be best known for the 30 miles of Appalachian Trail that forms its spine, but the foothills and valleys are as interesting and important as the spectacular ridge that defines the skyline. These valleys and foothills are crisscrossed with hiking, snowmobile, ATV, and cross- country ski trails. They also enclose large chunks of undivided timberlands lands that are still a key part of the region’s forestry livelihood.

The High Peaks Initiative is a land preservation effort aimed at keeping these lands and our use and enjoyment of them as intact as possible. When my wife and I hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail last summer we were struck by how many had traveled long distances just to hike a section or two of the trail in and around the Hundred Mile Wilderness. These people were not end-to-enders, they hiked a few days here and there interspersed with refueling and relaxation stops in nearby Millinocket, where a local lodge could shuttle them to and from the trail and wine and dine them when they were done. On the heels of a paper industry collapse, Millinocket is effectively recasting itself as an Appalachian Trail town. Hikers, boaters, and anglers in the summer; skiers and snowmobilers in the winter. At this end of the trail, we have Rangeley and Stratton that play similar roles for outdoor tourists.

In our High Peaks Initiative, we are seeking willing sellers who are interested in either selling land outright or through a conservation easement. Our goal is to maintain and even expand the public rights of use while maintaining a sound, sustainable forestry base. The good news is that this region is still dominated by a few large landowners, some of whom have expressed an interest in our own proposal. The Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust and the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust have partnered in a Forest Legacy Program proposal to fund most of what we need to complete these transactions.

The effort is huge – -holdings totaling 20,000 acres is our first goal– and the costs are great – -phase 1 is about $10 million— but the pieces are slowly falling into place.

This is win-win for all of us. Traditional recreation and forestry will be protected while we also make a down payment on expanding the tourism possibility of our region. Today tourists increasingly seek areas of big scenery and abundant recreation possibilities. There is no reason Maine’s High Peaks region cannot stand tall among other possible choices such as the Smokies, The Adirondacks, and even Yosemite. There is no reason that the towns that border this region cannot be trail towns that share in the wealth that four-season recreation can bring.

Steve Bien, a Jay resident and Farmington physician, is a member of Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust, the organization that formed the High Peaks Alliance initiative.

 

 

 

 

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