Chapter Thirty-Five: Open Land

Wednesday 1 August 2007 - "In the evening, I drove to the Tech College in Berlin to attend a public hearing on management of the Lake Umbagog wildlife refuge. There must have been fifty people there, but only about ten spoke, and only two of them had prepared statements. As is usual with formal hearings, not much of value was said. One man showed pictures of Teddy Roosevelt riding a horse up San Juan Hill, which made it clear (to the presenter) that Teddy had wanted horses on refuges. (The refuge plan does not permit horseback riding, currently.) A woman objected to fur trapping on the refuge, because (in her opinion) it is as barbaric as are organized dog fights. I was sitting next to a friend who has been a trapper all his life; it was interesting to watch his facial expressions, and to watch the colors change in his face as she continued her presentation!"

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North Country people hate The Government. Well, maybe that's too strong a statement, but it's certainly accurate to say they mistrust The Government, and want as little as possible to do with It. That applies to all government, but especially "the Feds." It's the same attitude I ran into so often among the ranchers, loggers and miners in the Intermountain West, where men are men, women are women, and neither wants their lives controlled or regulated by anybody from "Washington" (or from "Away," as is said up here). A lot of the feeling has to do with wanting to be self-sufficient, wanting to do or go wherever one pleases, and with feeling confident that - if just left alone - everybody will be able to do what's right for themselves and the country.

In proper proportions, it's a characteristic I admire. Taken to its extremes, the results can sometimes be described by the old saying, "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face."

Take the issue of land ownership and control. North Country people tolerate the National Forests - because the forests are open to almost all possible recreational uses, and a fair number of commercial ones - but they don't especially like the Forest Service, and certainly don't want any more national forests in their backyard. Few locals have had first-hand experience with the National Park Service, but that agency's reputation for "locking up the land" (in effect, not permitting hunting and snowmobiling) strikes a philosophical sour note in this area north of the notches. (I remember when one highly respected citizen tried to arrange a meeting with the Park Service to discuss ways that the Androscoggin River might be made into more of a community attraction. Not one local dignitary would attend.)

The Fish and Wildlife Service was pretty much unknown in the North Country before talk started about a possible federal wildlife refuge at Lake Umbagog, about an hour up the road from us on the New Hampshire-Maine border. It didn't take long for this group of Feds to join the ranks of the despised, because they talked about buying land and regulating its use. Predictably, local opposition was strong. The Umbagog Refuge was created, and now - like the Forest Service - Fish and Wildlife presence is generally tolerated by the local citizenry. But a new round of planning, with more proposed land purchase, has resulted in new cries against government control of lands.

Twenty years ago - even ten years ago - North Country locals had some pretty good arguments against government acquisition of lands. They could point out that most of the land north of the notches was in the hands of benevolent lumber companies, which maintained the wild, undeveloped character of the land, and had allowed pretty much unrestricted public access to their holdings for over 100 years. Although the companies had changed - in our area from Brown Company, to Boise-Cascade, to James River, to Mead - the holdings remained large and wide open, and there seemed no reason to believe that the situation would change. Timber harvest was clearly here to stay, and it was well known that timber companies did not sell off their holdings. Also, there was no pressure to reserve lands in the North Country, because there were no threats to them. Surely, even if timberlands were for sale, there was nobody interested in big residential, recreational, or industrial developments in these wide open spaces far from civilization, and well beyond the main tourism areas of the Northeast. Did we really need a federal wildlife area?

But, as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Most of the big lumber companies are gone, now. The lands they owned are still there and - for the time being - many of them are still open to the public. But the former well-known owners like James River and Mead have been replaced by "holding companies" with names like Bayroot, whose actual ownerships are often well-hidden from the public. Although they continue to have the lands logged, their intent is just what "holding company" suggests: hold on to the land only as long as it takes to sell it for more money than can be made logging it, or as long as it takes to convert it to uses more profitable than logging, like private upscale housing and recreational development. I got a first-hand idea of the new management when I wrote to the Bayroot land manager about purchasing some of their land adjacent to ours. The manager wrote back that, yes, they were interested in selling land, but: "It doesn't sound like you're thinking about paying a premium over generic timberland prices, which suggests we aren't headed to a deal."

Continuing long-term access to the North Country timberlands is clearly not high on the holding companies' list of objectives.

Demand is increasing for big blocks of North Country lands as private retreats, something that seemed almost inconceivable twenty years ago. One large company has proposed a major private residential-recreational development around Moosehead Lake in western Maine, a development that would greatly reduce the free land use currently enjoyed there by North Country folks. Here on our hill, one man from "Away" recently bought 2,000 acres of forestland for his own private hunting reserve. He immediately posted the boundaries with unfriendly, adamant "no trespassing" signs, backing up the prohibition by gating and locking a road across his land that had been freely used by everyone since it was built (or, more correctly, traveled into existence, since it was never "built") in the 1800s. This is the first time in the history of our country - actually, in human history - that this acreage, under all its various former owners, has not been open and available to hunters, hikers, berry pickers, wildlife watchers, Sunday drivers, and just about anybody else seeking to enjoy these particular outdoors.

My conclusion: North Country folks will some day be very glad to have Umbagog wildlife refuge, national forests, and other public lands, and will likely wish that there were more "free" areas for them to roam on. The restrictions placed on their use of these lands will then seem pretty harmless, considering that the alternative is to have no place at all for recreation. But broad brush, regional attitudes like "anti-Government" are slow to change, and I suspect the lands available to the North Country public in fifty years will be mere postage stamp parcels compared to what might be reserved today.

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A postscript about my trapper friend, that illustrates the intensity of the "anti government" feeling in the North Country: He loves the outdoors, and feels life is best when he is able to go anywhere he wants, and can do anything he wants on the land. But he believes in private property rights. While he doesn't like it that our neighbor has locked up 2,000 acres of land that have by tradition always been open to him, he is not as upset by that as by the idea that a Federal agency might put some minimal restrictions on use of a national forest or wildlife area. It's a complicated philosophy.

And another postscript: The photo at the top of the page was taken on private lumber company land, just west of the Umbagog Refuge. Although "private," it has always been open to most public uses, with only limited restrictions. But "the times they are a-changin'......"

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