There are two versions of the Maine Woods. There's the grand and unbroken forest, threaded with tumbling rivers, that unspools endlessly in the popular perception, and then there's the reality.
The perception is that this region is the last outpost of big wilderness in the East, with thousands of acres of unbroken forest, miles of free-running streams, and more azure lakes than you can shake a canoe paddle at. A look at a road map seems to confirm this, with only a few roads shown here and there amid terrain pocked with lakes; but undeveloped does not mean untouched.
The reality is that this forestland is a massive plantation, largely owned and managed by a handful of international paper and timber companies. An extensive network of small timber roads feeds off major arteries and opens the region to extensive clear-cutting. This is most visible from the air. In the early 1980s, New Yorker writer John McPhee noted that much of northern Maine "looks like an old and badly tanned pelt. The hair is coming out in tufts." That's even more the case today following the acceleration of timber harvesting thanks to technological advances in logging and demands for faster cutting to pay down large debts incurred during the large-scale buying and selling over the past decade and a half.
While the North Woods are not a vast, howling wilderness, the region still has fabulously remote enclaves where moose and loon predominate, and where the turf hasn't changed all that much since Thoreau paddled through in the mid-19th century and found it all "moosey and mossy." If you don't arrive expecting utter wilderness, you're less likely to be disappointed.
The Debate over Maine's North Woods -- Much of Maine's outdoor recreation takes place on private lands -- and that's especially true in the North Woods, 9 million acres of which are owned by fewer than two dozen timber companies. This sprawling, uninhabited land is increasingly at the heart of a simmering debate over land-use policies.
Hunters, fishermen, canoeists, rafters, bird-watchers, and hikers have been accustomed to having the run of much of this forest, with the tacit permission of most of the timber companies, many of which had long and historic ties to Maine's woodland communities because the companies were founded here.
But a lot has changed in recent years. One of the biggest factors has been the increasing value of lakefront property, which has suddenly made this land far more valuable as second-home property than as standing timber. A number of parcels have been sold off, and some formerly open land has been closed to visitors.
At the same time, corporate turnovers in the paper industry have led to increased debt loads and greater pressure from shareholders to produce more from the woodlands; this, in turn, has led to accelerated timber harvesting and big land sales, parcels sometimes changing hands at a dizzying speed. Environmentalists maintain that this is a disaster in the making. They believe the forest can't provide jobs in the timber industry or remain a viable recreational destination if the state continues on its present course, and they believe that tree-cutting and herbicide spraying are both done far too recklessly. The timber companies deny this, insisting they're practicing responsible forestry.
A number of proposals to restore and conserve the forest have circulated in recent years, ranging from sweeping steps (such as establishing a new 2.6-million-acre national park here) to more modest notions such as encouraging timber companies to practice sustainable forestry and keep access open for recreation through tax incentives.
In the 1990s, statewide referendums calling for a clear-cutting ban and sweeping new timber-harvesting regulations were twice defeated, but the land-use issue hasn't sorted itself out yet. The debate over the future of this forest isn't as volatile here as in the Pacific Northwest, where public lands are involved. Nevertheless, few residents around here lack opinions on the matter.