Development vs. Conservation at Moosehead Lake

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Timber managers, real estate developers and conservationists are struggling over control of Moosehead Lake in Maine. Areas around the lake remain largely undeveloped. Now, the Plum Creek Timber Company wants to put in nearly a thousand lots for houses — as part of the largest development proposal in the state's history.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Timber managers, real estate developers and conservationists are struggling over control of Moosehead Lake in Maine. Areas around the lake remain largely undeveloped. Now the Plum Creek Timber Company wants to put in nearly a thousand lots for houses. Susan Sharon reports.

SUSAN SHARON reporting:

About 10 miles from the nearest paved road is a cluster of rustic cabins that look pretty much the same as they did a hundred years ago. The outhouse remains in regular use and wood is still the only source of heat.

Mr. ERIC STIRLING (Fourth Generation Owner, West Branch Pond Camps): We're standing right here in the yard at West Branch Pond Camps. We're looking up at White Cap Mountain and the Appalachian Trail runs right along that ridge line right up there.

SHARON: Eric Stirling is the fourth generation owner of the camps where snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and fly fishing attract outdoor enthusiasts. Moose wander in and out of camp, and in the last few years, guests have been treated to occasional sightings of lynx.

(Soundbite of kitchen activity)

SHARON: As they make coffee and fry up bacon in the main lodge, Stirling and his mother, Carol, worry about the future. At 40 miles long, Moosehead Lake and the hundreds of thousands of acres of forest that surround it are one of the largest undeveloped areas east of the Mississippi. But increasingly, camps and second homes are being constructed nearby. Carol Stirling says she's bracing for a fight.

Ms. CAROL STIRLING (West Branch Pond Camps): Wilderness isn't paved roads. Wilderness isn't electric cables. You have to take a stand and say this will be wilderness, enough pushing.

SHARON: The Stirlings say it is possible to leave a legacy for those like the naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who come to the Maine woods in search of solitude and silence.

(Soundbite of a snowmobile)

SHARON: A half-hour drive away, the small town of Greenville, population 1,600, is a haven for snowmobilers who fill up at gas stations and zip around the frozen reaches of Moosehead Lake. For Leigh Turner, owner of the Black Frog Pub, this is the sound of money being made. Logs and woodsmen that once clogged the town's streets have been replaced with tourists, but Turner says just not enough of them. In a good year, he says his business is lucky to break even, and he says the state of Maine has been no help.

Mr. LEIGH TURNER (Black Frog Pub): It's almost as if they have a vendetta against this area. `We want you to go under. We don't want to see any development. We want all of you people to move out of Moosehead Lake so this can become an area for the Greenies and their Birkenstocks and canoes to come up and look at moose.'

SHARON: A former real estate developer, Turner says he and other businesspeople support Plum Creek's development plan as a way to diversify their economy. In addition to hundreds of house lots, the plan calls for two resorts on either side of Moosehead Lake. But it would also provide permanent protection for the shorelines around 55 smaller lakes and ponds. The Greenville board of selectmen has unanimously endorsed it, and town manager John Simko says the plan offers something for everyone.

Mr. JOHN SIMKO (Greenville Town Manager): It's easy to say it's a beautiful place to visit and to play and, therefore, I don't want anything to change. You need to look at this area and say to meet the demands of running a community, of having a sustainable economy, what balance do you strike? What balance do you strike between development and conservation?

SHARON: In the early '90s, two area sawmills closed, putting 135 people out of work. The jobs have not been replaced. At the same time, land values are rising, something not lost on Plum Creek. The Seattle-based company is one of the largest private timberland owners in the nation. Kathy Budinick is a spokesperson for the company.

Ms. KATHY BUDINICK (Plum Creek Spokesperson): One of the most important reasons for Plum Creek developing this plan was so that we could operate in an environment of predictability in the future with our lands in Maine.

SHARON: The plan would guarantee that 382,000 acres of working forest would remain in timber production for 30 years. But critics are worried that the Maine woods will be further fragmented by then and that Plum Creek's blueprint will only put the West Branch Pond Camps and other special places in jeopardy. Review of the plan is expected to last many months. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Portland, Maine.

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