Alan Hutchinson was always thinking.
Thinking about ways to approach things differently, to bring people together, to untangle complicated problems. All with an overriding goal: to protect Maine’s North Woods for future generations.
Karin Tilberg, his deputy director at the Forest Society of Maine, remembers how they would often work together on a particularly knotty problem right up until the end of the workweek. “We’d go our separate ways. At the end of the weekend when we came back together on Monday, Alan would say, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking . . . what about if we approach it this way.’ I really relished and cherished that about him. That he had that tenacity and resolve. He was always thinking.”
Hutchinson, FSM’s first and only executive director in its 30-year history, died Aug. 27 of a heart attack. He was 70 years old. His sudden death stunned colleagues, friends and others in the conservation movement and the forest products industry who had worked with him on projects to protect the Maine woods.
They remembered him as a gentle, kind man. A man with a seemingly untapped reservoir of patience. A man who had an uncanny ability to bring people together. They said he helped people see past their divisions to focus on what they had in common — love of the vast forested landscape of northern and eastern Maine.
“His calm, thoughtful leadership” led the Society to grow steadily and “in a way everybody was comfortable with,” said George Jacobson Jr., a professor emeritus of biology, ecology and climate change at the University of Maine and the president of the organization’s board of directors. “Alan always had an amazing calm and peacefulness about him” and “an intuitive sense of when was the right time to talk to people about a particular subject.”
Jacobson said Hutchinson realized that all the people he was talking to “shared 95 percent of the same goals — to be able to enjoy the woods, to have a healthy forest and a healthy forest products industry. He believed in those things and he was able to talk to people in a way that often got them thinking in a new way.”
“He was a patient listener,“ said Dave Edson, the president of the Sewall Co. and a former a member of FSM’s board. “He did listen hard and made a practice of circling back if he thought something had been left unsettled, and close the loop. He was a thoughtful speaker, not a dynamic speaker, but thoughtful. And masterfully inclusive. The kind of guy who wore patience on his sleeve. He had a vision and he would help other people to invest in that vision.”
Tilberg called Hutchinson “a man for his time” who “had a real ability to bring people together who may not initially see eye to eye, but do have shared goals, but haven’t focused on them. His was a quiet form of leadership. He had the ability to listen well and help people find solutions.”
“He was a very, very close friend. I admired him for his leadership. He went beyond expectations in taking the organization to new levels that we’re all proud of. But it was his baby,” said Bucky Owen, a retired University of Maine professor, former FSM board member and former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “He was a wonderful leader and did great work that will live on for generations to come.”
Twenty years after Hutchinson came on as executive director, FSM has become the fourth largest land trust in the U.S, when measured by acreage conserved. It has a staff of eight and an annual budget of $800,000. It has helped to protect a million acres across Maine, primarily using conservation easements, and been instrumental in redefining how such easements are employed and enforced.
It began life in the mid-1980s as a step-child of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests in order to be the custodian of a new — and then huge — conservation easement on 20,000 acres of land around Attean Pond in northwestern Maine, land that included scenic shorelines, the Attean Bog and the route of the iconic canoe trip called the Moose River Bow Trip.
In the 1990s, with sales of swathes of Maine forestland heating up, movers and shakers in the conservation movement saw a need for an organization that could work to preserve the northern forest by slowing fragmentation and development — a land trust for the North Woods, if you will. And FSM was spun off as an independent organization.
Hutchinson had been the director of the state’s Endangered Species and Non-Game Wildlife Program. “He was greatly respected in that role,” said Owen, who had served on Hutchinson’s committee for his graduate degree from UM. “He did a really good job there. The whole program was just beginning. It had been a game species-oriented organization and he had to slowly bring together the interests and educate people about the importance of non-game species. He had already proven himself as a leader.”
But in 1997 Hutchinson left the state’s payroll and signed on as FSM’s executive director.
“They handed me about two dozen manila envelopes stuffed with background information and business plans and bylaws and said, ‘ Here you go.’ I worked off my kitchen table for about six months,” Hutchinson told me when I did a feature piece on FSM and its work for the Forests for Maine’s Future Program’s website in 2013.
Looking back, Hutchinson was amazed at both his good fortune and the success of the fledgling organization.
“We sensed there was a need for FSM’s work, but we couldn’t be sure that our instincts were accurate,” he wrote in the introduction to the book Reflections, a look back at the society’s work that was published in 2015. “Within weeks of my hiring, Jim and Jenness Robbins, fifth generation owners of Robbins Lumber, came through our door, searching for an alternative to selling 20 miles of shoreline on Nicatous Lake for development. For me the arrival of the Robbins brothers was confirmation that the need for FSM was real.”
The Nicatous deal taught him and others a lot about using conservation easements and the “role they could play in Maine’s rapidly changing forest landscape. Forestland owners and conservation interests were working together,” he wrote in Reflections.
The tool, the organization and the people would literally reshape the conservation movement in the state and launch 20 years of FSM projects, including some of the largest conservation easements the country has ever seen.
“He laid the groundwork, more than that actually, for forest conservation in Maine but also beyond Maine. It’s a model for working forests with ecological reserves and the whole complex, the whole thing,” said Owen.
Owen said Hutchinson “had a lot of leadership abilities that people didn’t realize initially. But his leadership and counsel were extremely important. And his ability to sit down with groups and find common goals and also to raise the kind of dollars that were needed to make all of these projects work. They just got bigger and better.”
Soon after Hutchinson came on board the huge West Branch Project got underway, an effort to protect 329,000 acres of former Great Northern Paper Co. lands, including the headwaters of the Penobscot and St. John rivers that concluded after a successful five-year, multi-million- dollar fundraising campaign.
There were others. Many others.
In the headwaters of the Kennebago River and the Debsconeag Lakes, south of Baxter State Park. There was Bald Ledge-Bickford Hill, a project to protect a popular hiking spot in western Maine. Another to protect a hardwood forest in northern Maine and one to protect an uncommon forest of silver maples. There was the 32,400-acre Reed Forest, a sustainably-managed woodland dotted with bogs and streams along the Mattawamkeag River, home to bald eagles and Canada lynx. And the quirkily-named Timberdoodle Hill, 150 acres near Bangor. There was the Amherst Community Forest. And No. 5 and No. 6 Mountains. The list goes on.
Last year FSM concluded a deal to protect thousands of acres in the Gulf Hagas-Whitecap Mountain area.
FSM’s largest, and perhaps the most ambitious and complicated deal, was the Moosehead Lake region lands. The Moosehead Region Conservation Easement arose from Plum Creek Timber Co.’s desire for a state-approved lake concept plan covering its holdings in the Moosehead Lake area. The organization partnered with The Nature Conservancy to acquire a conservation easement from Plum Creek on 359,000 acres around Moosehead Lake. It was the second largest conservation easement in the nation. The easement ensures public access across a vast expanse of forest, and protects fish and wildlife habitat, including dozens of habitats for rare and endangered plants and animals and ensures the forest will stay as a forest forever and be managed sustainably.
Hutchinson spoke often of the Attean Pond project that provided the nucleus of the Society’s work, said Tilberg. And Nicatous Lake. And the West Branch Project, for the sheer magnitude of it. And Moosehead.
“Most important to him was the agreement around Moosehead Lake,” said the Sewall Co.’s Edson. “It was a singularly large undertaking and, in the parlance of a boxer, you’re fighting above your weight. And he succeeded. More to the point, that property has since gone through an ownership transition and the standards are still in place and being enforced.”
FSM is currently working on projects throughout the state, including the 650 acres of woods in the Weld area owned by renewed biologist and author Bernd Heinrich. (See the Forests for Maine’s Future article on Heinrich and his relationship to his woodlands in our archives on our website.) FSM is also talking with the owners of tens of thousands of acres elsewhere in northern and eastern Maine about possible projects, said Tilberg.
Hutchinson, sadly, won’t be there to see them come to fruition.
But his organization will continue the work. No one doubts that. The conserved lands he worked on will endure for generations. But one of his greatest legacies might be the organization itself. And the spirit of cooperation between conservationists and forestland owners he helped nurture.
“There’s a strong respect for the Forest Society of Maine,” said Jacobson, FSM’s board president. It has earned national respect in the land trust movement, in communities throughout the state, in the conservation community in Maine, and in the forest products industry, he added. “I think he’s done a fantastic job in helping the Forest Society become a success. In the twenty years since he was hired there has been continuous development of the organization, including a competent and mutually-supportive staff, a diverse board of strong advocates, and an impressive group of financial supporters. Most of this evolved as a result of Alan’s leadership.”
Jacobson went on to speak wistfully of a conversation he had with Hutchinson recently.
They were having a leisurely lunch on the shores of the Penobscot River in Bangor. Jacobson was leaving the next day for a visit to California. They reminisced about FSM’s involvement over the years in protecting the Penobscot. They talked about “the tremendous staff that had developed at FSM.” Hutchinson described a recent hike with his two granddaughters up Cadillac Mountain through the fog. They talked about Hutchinson’s plans to retire.
Two friends, talking about important things. Things that really matter. The past, the future. Challenges. Successes. Legacies.
“I left that lunch and drove back to Orono and thought Alan was so happy. He was just absolutely happy about the Forest Society of Maine and everything about it, and his family and his granddaughters and the future. Everything we talked about and were planning. He was so excited and smiling as we talked.”
Only a few days later, Alan Hutchinson was dead. Like others who knew Hutchinson well, Jacobson felt a gut-wrenching sense of loss. But he thought back to that lunch on the river. To the ebb and flow of their conversation. He saw again his friend and colleague smiling, content, fulfilled. And found a measure of comfort in that.
“It actually made me feel really good to know that his last few days were as happy as he could have been.”
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, nature and sustainability.