The Moosehead Lake area has been a destination for a long time.
Native Americans came hundreds of miles to collect the rare igneous rock of Mt. Kineo, prized for arrow and spear points. Later, wealthy city slickers came for the scenery and the hunting and fishing, staying in grand hotels and rustic hunting camps. Lumbermen came to harvest trees.
Things have changed over the centuries. Today Mt. Kineo is a popular hiking spot. The grand hotels are history. And loggers are more likely to be working the joysticks on a $400,000 feller buncher than using a chainsaw, never mind a crosscut saw.
But tourism and timber remain the mainstays of this beautiful area’s economy. And today the Moosehead region is looking to reinvigorate its economy and ensure its future by capitalizing on conservation.
The remnant volcano that is Mt. Kineo is only 1,788 feet high, but its location on a peninsula jutting westward into Moosehead Lake gives you a hawk’s eye view of the landscape. Seeming unending forest. Lakes. Ponds. The sprawling mercury-like surface of the big lake itself. The view is superb. But enhanced if you know that most of the landscape you’re looking down on has some form of protection.
“You’re looking at about half a million acres of conserved lands,” says Karin Tilberg, the executive director of the Forest Society of Maine. “There is really very little unprotected land. It’s an area that you can trust to see very little development, and isn’t going to look a lot different 100 years from now.”
That half a million acres isn’t a national park or national forest. It wasn’t created by act of Congress, or even a state Legislature.
Instead, it’s a quilt of conservation “styles” stitched together over more than two decades, with pieces owned by the state, conservation groups, and private individuals and corporations but subject to easements.
Maine citizens own tens of thousands of acres in the region — state parks and public reserved lands, wildlife refuges; mountains, lakes, islands, shoreline and river corridors. Some examples: 1,200-acre Lily Bay State Park, including its scattering of gem-like islands; Mt. Kineo State Park, 800 acres on the Kineo Peninsula; nearly 43,000 acres in the Nahmakanta Lake area; 900 acres of Sugar Island and 980 acres of Farm Island in the middle of Moosehead.
The Nature Conservancy owns 46,000 acres around the Debsconeag Lakes south of Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain. The Appalachian Mountain Club owns nearly 75,000 acres around the Roach Ponds, in the Katahdin Iron Works area and around Silver Lake. The National Park Service owns a corridor along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The famed 100-Mile Wilderness, where you can walk for days without crossing a paved road, traverses east of Moosehead Lake.
Much of the forestland around the lake is privately owned, but most is protected by conservation easements — deed restrictions that ensure public access and prohibit or limit future development and certain uses of the land. Hundreds of thousands of acres are covered by these easements, held by the state, the Forest Society of Maine and others.
In most cases the easements allow timber harvesting. It’s a provision designed to preserve a legacy of forest management that helps support Maine’s greater economy. Numeroous mills and sawmills and thousands of jobs throughout Maine depend on the state’s forested landscape.
Some patches of this conservation quilt are off limits to harvesting: designated as ecological reserves to protect endangered or rare plants or animals. Others are protected as “deer wintering areas” where white-tailed deer find shelter in the snows of winter. Hundreds of miles of rivers and miles of shorefront on lakes and ponds are off limits to development, including 163 miles of lake shore and 69 lakes and ponds.
Tilberg likes to call it the “Moosehead conservation story” and it’s been decades in the making.
If there could be said to be a prime mover, it might be the upheaval in forestland ownership that began in the 1990s when paper companies sold off their vast forestlands to investors. In his book, The Changing Nature of the Maine Woods, Andrew Barton and his co-authors note that “from 1994 to 2005, forest products industry ownership of forestland declined from 59 to 16 percent,” and the percentage held by investors such as Real Estate Investment Trusts rose from 3 percent to 40. The changes continued after that.
“The large scale land sales most certainly had a powerful influence on how people viewed the stability of the resources, economic opportunities and traditions that they depended on,” said Tilberg.
She recalled talking to one long-time Greenville resident about the “bewilderment” felt by many when the original Scott Paper Co. lands in the region traded hands three times over a short period. They are now owned by Weyerhaeuser Co. While that type of change is disconcerting, Tilberg said it also “prompted the thoughtful and creative approaches to conservation that have emerged and there have been some wonderful landowners along the way willing to work to achieve these outcomes.”
And as conservation efforts moved forward, communities around Moosehead began to coalesce around a plan to capitalize on this conservation mosaic and the region’s natural beauty and attractions as a path toward a secure and economically stable future.
A group of about 20 residents worked with the consulting firm Roger Brooks International on a “branding effort” that in 2015 issued a report outlining more than three dozen concrete steps local businesses and governments could undertake to market the area as a recreation destination: everything from improving encouraging street musicians to creating a marketing organization to locating benches in downtown Greenville.
The group had three overriding goals, increase the region’s residential population, create an economy that extends into all seasons, and draw attention to and sustain the area’s natural beauty. There is recognition in the effort that the “unusual and beneficial mosaic of conservation easements and lands form the foundation for the region’s successful future,” Tilberg said.
As part of the effort to create a “Moosehead region brand,” the group chose and trademarked the descriptive moniker “America’s Crown Jewel” — an outright acknowledgement that the landscape is paramount in the region’s economic future.
Building on that work, in September 2017 the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corp., with the help of consulting and research firm Future iQ, released a strategic plan to make the branding group’s three goals of increasing population, extending the seasonal economy and leveraging the region’s natural beauty a reality.
Tilberg said there has been “material progress” in implementing the recommendations of the two reports, including putting up signage to help visitors, expanding wi-fi access, improving the downtown and community beautification.
Along the way, conservation organizations became intimately involved in the evolving effort. Not only through land ownership but by committing resources as well. Tilberg has served on the economic development committee for years and Erica Kaufmann, a Forest Society forestland steward, headed up Moosehead Trails, a group of trail work volunteers, for three years.
The Forest Society of Maine has an office at the Moose Region Visitor Center. This past summer Ellen Poole donated an 80-acre woodlot adjacent to the center to the Society. Tilberg sees the property as a great place for visitors to learn about the region’s forest resources, past and present.
The Appalachian Mountain Club also has a regional office in Greenville. The venerable conservation organization began its move into the region in 2003 with the purchase of Little Lyford Pond Camps. The organization had long been a player in the White Mountain National Forest, created by the Weeks Act of 1911. “I said to our board, ‘we did this in 1911 and 1918 . . . why can’t we do this again in Maine and not become a national forest or park, but become a partner in private ownership,” said AMC Senior Vice President Walter Graff. “That resonated with our members and we raised a lot of money for it.”
AMC has since made more land purchases in the region: the Roach Pond tract, Baker Mountain and so on. It operates lodges and cabins and has what Graff calls a “fairly robust forestry program.” All in all the AMC employs the equivalent of something like 40 full-time people. In addition, it has created miles of hiking trails and worked to provide “recreation opportunities that didn’t exist before or if they did were hard to find,” Graff said.
Graff believes that “for conservation to succeed, the greater economy has to succeed.” There have to be motels and hotels and camping areas for visitors to stay in and restaurants for them to eat at, he said. And there have to be things for them to do, one reason for a push to expand the area’s cultural and recreational offerings, expand the number of public trails, and reach out to attract more mountain bikers and fat-tire winter trail bikers.
More recreational opportunities create more business. It’s a self-feedback loop.
Sally Johnson runs Moosehead Hills Cabins with her husband, Bill Foley.
The conservation effort acknowledges that “there is a whole new set of people out there looking for a nature-based experience,” she said. “Some want an extreme experience of roughing it, others to experience the tranquility and beauty and be pampered in a spa-like atmosphere.” The region can offer both, she said. “We’ve heard time and again from our guests that there is nothing like it elsewhere in the world.”
Some locals, she acknowledges, “are still desperately clinging to the hope” that the big Millinocket mills will come back, and say “tourism is only low income jobs.” She rebuts that argument by pointing out that tourism is a “big business generator.” With a lot of visitors comes the need for services, everything from lodging and restaurants to laundromats and auto repair, Johnson said.
“I think there is still a lot of public outreach needed to help people get that message,” she said.
Luke Muzzy said that recent accomplishments remain something of a secret, not only to visitors, but alsolong-time residents.
“So much of the conservation has happened in the past 20 years. It happened so fast and is so big that even the locals don’t realize the significance of it,” said Muzzy. He says it might be a generation before “folks realize how wonderful the transformation has been.”
Muzzy is a senior land asset manager for Weyerhaeuser, the successor to Plum Creek Timber Co. and the owner of hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland in Maine, much of it in the Moosehead region. Muzzy has eight generations of roots in the area and has been intimately involved in both conservation and the economic development efforts that are flowing from it.
And he’s immensely proud of what’s been accomplished. “We’ve stopped the bleeding. We are moving toward a sustainable economy based on the land base. It’s in its infancy, but it seems to be working,” Muzzy said.
One of the most important things the effort has created is “predictability,” Muzzy said. That’s one of the big benefits of the region’s conservation story, that the land is protected.
Visitors should be happy to learn that, as they’re driving out of town, the image fading in the rearview will be one they can comfortably count on seeing when they return again next year. Or in five years. Or 10. In our human lives in the 21st century, we’re bombarded by change. Often fast-paced. Frequently jarring. Sometimes unwelcome. Sometimes we just need a place where time seems to stand still and the things we love persist. Conserved landscapes offer an antidote to the hurly-burly of our world. A refuge. A sanctuary. Some certainty in an uncertain world. A place that, when you go there, will be the place you knew you always wanted to be.
Joe Rankin is a writer on forestry, nature and sustainability. He lives in New Sharon, Maine.