The Northern Forest: Our Last Best Chance

By Reidel, Carl | American Forests, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

The Northern Forest: Our Last Best Chance


Reidel, Carl, American Forests


THE NORTHERN FOREST: OUR LAST BEST CHANCE

Many a tall tale has come out of the great north woods of New England and New York. But this one's for real. Even the tales of Paul Bunyan are tame by comparison. This is a true story of yuppie robber barons, an English knight, governors and senators, scientific studies, and riotous hearings where "Mr. Cougar" and "Ms. Owl" testify alongside corporate officers.

It's a tale still unfolding, with the ending up in the air. And though it's the story of a northern forest with colorful names recalling an earlier time, it is truly every forest's story. The answers to the tough choices now being debated in far-off places like the Maine woods and Vermont's Northeast Kingdom may well reshape our thinking and laws about forests nationwide for a long time to come.

The central question is, to adapt a line from Robert Frost, "Whose woods are these?" Who will own them, and who will decide their future? To answer these questions, an amazing cast of characters are locked in debate, if not battle. And so far, the only agreement among them is that this will be our last best chance to achieve the shared vision of protecting the long-term integrity and traditional uses of this vast forest area.

This "shared vision" was crafted about a year ago by a U.S. Forest Service study team, working with a special task force appointed by the governors of Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont, after a series of hearings regionwide. Their draft study report warns that "the road will not be smooth. There will be compromises and sacrifices. In pursuing any common vision, saving some things usually means losing others, so the choices may be particularly tough."

And tough the choices have become. Should private land be acquired by the states or federal government? How much? Where? For a national forest or a national park . . . or some new kind of national reserve? What economic incentives are reasonable to assist large corporations to maintain forest ownership? What rights should these corporations yield in return? Should the four states form a permanent regional commission to oversee further studies and land-use planning? On and on.

But we're getting ahead of the story. First, something about these lands and what sparked the present debate.

FAR-OFF WOODS

Spread over 25 million acres, the Northern Forest is larger in area than all the national parks in the lower 48 states. It reaches from Maine's most easterly coast, through northern New Hampshire and Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, across Lake Champlain and into the Adirondacks of New York. It includes almost 75 percent of Maine and a third of New York.

Much of this vast northland is boreal forest of spruce and fir, with a patchwork of hardwoods and conifers as you go south: white pine and hemlock, black spruce and white cedar, balsam fir, maple, beech, birches, ash, and basswood, in a rich array of mixed forest types. Lakes and rivers abound, many remote and undeveloped, providing a wealth of recreational opportunities for many of the 70 million people only a day's drive away in the eastern United States and Canada.

By every measure a national heritage, these north woods are biologically diverse ecosystems with significant areas of critical wildlife habitat. But they are a very human, working forest as well. Producing nearly 25 percent of the manufactured goods shipped from the northern New England states, this forest provides jobs with some of the world's largest forest-products companies.

This is also a very private forest, with less than one-fifth of the area in public ownership (over half of that in New York's Adirondack Park). Less than six percent of the vast Maine woods is publicly owned and that in the most forested state in the nation. Much of the land is in very large private holdings of 50,000 acres or more. Forest-products firms hold most of these large tracts, making up nearly half of all private lands in the area. …

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