There is the north Maine woods: the vast expanse of trees and mountains and ponds that makes up a significant portion of the Pine Tree State. Then there is North Maine Woods, the organization that manages recreation on 3.5 million acres of the state owned by a variety of landowners, from non-profit conservation groups and the state to investment firms and family-owned timber companies. The area includes some of Maine’s most in iconic outdoor recreation destinations: the St. John River and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, for instance. North Maine Woods — the organization — recently celebrated its 45th year. Forests for Maine’s Future writer Joe Rankin got in touch with Al Cowperthwaite, the organization’s executive director and a person who’s been with it since 1976, to talk about North Maine Woods’ history and its future. Here is their conversation, edited for clarity.
How did North Maine Woods get started?
There was cooperation among landowners in the region going back to the 1880s. The landowners were all working together on building dams to move their logs, on marking property lines and dealing with forest fires. So there was a long history of working together. Later there was a road committee that dealt with all roads crossing ownerships. The committee was facing issues with people parking on the roads at popular fishing and hunting destinations. In the 1960s they spun off and created a different organization just to deal with public use. In 1971 they gave it the name North Maine Woods and that’s the year we date our organization from.
So, what is it that North Maine Woods does, exactly?
North Maine Woods exists to manage the public use of the Maine woods so the landowners can concentrate on their forest management activities. We have a security responsibility with our checkpoints to keep track of who is coming and going.
How big is your budget and staff and where do does NMW get the money to pay for its operations?
Our annual budget is $1.25 million. We have four full-time year-round employees and 45 seasonal staff on duty from May through November. Our revenue comes from user fees paid by the public. Day use fees offset the costs of operating checkpoint facilities and camping fees pay workers who maintain campsites and outhouses and so on.
What do you fees look like and how have they changed over the years?
When we started out the day use fee for Maine residents was $1 at a time when the minimum wage was $1.25. Over the past 45 years the daily fee has somewhat tracked the minimum wage. Now our day use fee is $10 per day per person for Maine residents and $15 for non-residents. We don’t charge a day use fee for kids under 15 or seniors 70 or over. Our fees have gone up, but there’s been a trend of decreasing use and increasing costs. The Maine Legislature recently approved an increase in the minimum wage to $9 this year with additional $1 increases annually until the minimum reaches $12 per hour in 2020, so that’s going to impact us. Over the past 45 years our fee schedule has gotten rather complicated. We have over 30 different fees based on requests from our customers. We have annual passes and seasonal passes, special rates for people going to sporting camps, family camping passes — there are over 800 camps in the area — and we have a special rate for them and their guests.
So how does North Maine Woods’ existence benefit the owners, and how does it benefit the public?
The landowners don’t have many problems with theft or vandalism of logging equipment or their camps, There are very few incidents of arson or even campfires starting forest fires over the past 45 years. We track who comes into the area. Everyone leaves their name and address when they enter. We maintain 350 campsites and over 200 outhouses. We charge a pretty healthy camping fee and we want the facilities to be reflective of that, for people to get what they pay for. The camping fee is $12 for residents and $15 for non-residents, on top of the day use fee. Then a 9 percent sales tax on the camping fee. So it’s somewhere around $25 per Maine resident to stay for one night. We started charging fees 45 years ago and it was a new thing to have to pay for access to and use of the Maine woods. Today our staff explains that it costs to provide services and the minimum wage has gone up. Most reasonable people can understand the relationship between the fees and our operating costs. But still, there’s not many places, even in Maine. where people can enter the forest and not see any no trespassing signs and have access to 3.5 million acres and thousands of miles of private forest roads.
NMW has been around a long time. Is it unique in the world of recreation management, given that it represents a large ownership base with a variety or owners?
It certainly is. We’ve talked to a lot of people and we feel it would be very difficult today to start something like this for such a large land base. There were nine major landowners back in the 1960s and 70s. Now are nearly 40. It used to be the big land management firms, like Prentiss & Carlisle and Seven Islands Land Co. and paper companies like Great Northern Paper Co., Diamond International and International Paper Co. Those folks were of similar mind and were able to create the land use polices for the land base. Today we have The Nature Conservancy owning 200,000 acres and several investment companies own land for shorter windows of time — a 10-year window is common for investment companies.
How do those different organizations and businesses work together today?
It’s quite amazing to watch the members of our board of directors, who represent all these different entities talk about public use of their property and see how their thought process works. It comes down to the fact that all the owners, from Irving to The Nature Conservancy, agree that it’s great to have the land open for public use, but they want people to behave responsibly and to shoulder the costs of providing that access. The commissioners of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are non-voting members of our board. The private companies are able to work with the state agencies to make the land available for public use. And there’s a great amount of cooperation between the state agencies and the landowning companies.
What challenges does NMW face going forward?
One challenge is to keep the fees as reasonable as we can so the average family from Maine can visit. We’ve spent a lot of money in the last 10 years on technology. We’ve converted some of our checkpoints to automated checkpoints, where we can talk to people over the telephone and take their information and open gates remotely using the Internet. This is much more cost effective than paying people to staff registration stations that are not very busy. We have seven of those automated checkpoints. We are currently converting to a web-based visitor registration system rather than using a cumbersome software system installed on our laptops. Now we’re working on a process where our goal is to allow people to preregister on the Internet and pay fees before they arrive. It will be like ordering something on Amazon or eBay. That will help keep operating costs down.
With your checkpoints and computerized data your system must be a gold mile of information about where people go and what they do. Talk about that for a second.
One of the first things that happened in the 1970s is we had a fisheries biologist who wanted a record of visitor use statistics for fish and wildlife management purposes. We worked with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the University of Maine to create a computer program so we could tell the fish and wildlife people how many anglers went to each of the several hundred ponds and lakes in the North Maine Woods. We have maintained the same data collection service since. In addition to angler information, we also can tell how many bear and grouse and moose hunters went to each township in a given year. Grouse hunting has been on the increase. We have more grouse hunters than all other hunters combined. At any time we can tell who is in the North Maine Woods. If the Maine Warden Service is looking for someone — say there’s been a death in the family and they need to contact them — we can do a visitor search in our system and report that that person told us they were going to such and such a lake to fish and would be there for three days.
What’s your favorite place in the North Maine Woods area and why?
I started in 1976 when we were building campsites on the St. John River. One of my favorite things to do is to be on the St. John. That still holds a special place for me. But I have a ‘bucket list’ of places people should see — the Katahdin Iron Works/Gulf Hagas area, Debouille, probably 100 different locations that are kind of special in the Maine woods.
The number of people coming to the North Maine Woods has dropped over the years. Your statistics show that North Maine Woods’ “visitor use days” dropped fairly steadily from a high of 297,266 in 1999 to 162,908 in 2016. What do you think are the factors driving this trend?
There is a national trend of people visiting remote areas less now than in the past. Many people can’t be away from their social media network — there is no public internet or cell phone service in the North Maine Woods. There are more single parent families today making it difficult for parents to take their children camping. And school age children are raised in more structured environment today compared to the past. Sports, music and other school related activities take more time for the current generation. People are staying for shorter periods of time now than in the past. In the 1980’s deer hunting accounted for almost 40 percent of annual visitor use, but due to a substantial decrease in the deer population and changes in hunting opportunities in Canada this use is now less than 4 percent of total use. Numbers for people camping, fishing and visiting leased camps has remained similar or decreased slightly over the last two decades.
When people ask about the North Maine Woods, what’s to see and do there and what the region is like, what impressions do you get?
It’s somewhat difficult to explain to people who haven’t been in the North Maine Woods before what to expect. There are no services. There is no place to get a tire fixed. You can’t buy gasoline. To some people the wilderness might be a state park outside of Augusta or Bangor. Everybody has a different perspective of what the forest is. We go out of our way, probably more than many organizations, to help people figure out what they’re going to be doing when they come here.
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, natural history and sustainability.