S3E5 200 Years of Maine Forests: Navigating Vacationland

This episode of Maine Policy Matters explores an article by Lloyd C. Irland, “From Wilderness to Timberland to Vacationland to Ecosystem: Maine’s Forests, 1820–2020,” that examines the different ways people have viewed Maine forests over the last 200 years.

[00:00:00] Eric Miller: For the first time in a hundred years or more, Maine’s total forest area is beginning to shrink. Maine’s state slogan is Vacationland, but how do we navigate the forest as wilderness, timberland, vacation land, and ecosystem. This is the Maine Policy Matters Podcast from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.

[00:00:19] I’m Eric Miller, research associate at the center. On each episode of Maine Policy Matters, we discuss public policy issues relevant to the state of Maine. Today we will be covering an article by Lloyd C. Irland, author of five books, fellow of the Society of American Foresters, and participant in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and National Assessment on Climate Change.

[00:00:41] Irland gives us an inside perspective on Maines Forest from 1820 to 2010 in his article titled, “From Wilderness to Timberland to Vacationland to Ecosystem: Maine’s Forests, 1820-2020.” This article was published in Volume 29, number 2 of Maine Policy Review, a peer reviewed academic journal published from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. For all citations for data provided in this episode, please refer to Lloyd Irland’s article, which can be found in the episode description.

[00:01:14] Want to know the history of Maine as a vacationland and how the forest has changed over the last 200 years? Lloyd Irland has some answers.

[00:01:23] The story of Maines Forest has many themes across American economic history, including technology and markets for wood products, labor-management conflicts, financial technology, and logging equipment to name just a few. Irland touches on these topics by focusing on how Maine’s forests have changed over time. He examines many aspects of Maine’s forests, and in this episode we focus on Maine’s forest at statehood, as timberland, as part of Vactionland, and as ecosystem, and carbon sink.

[00:01:53] Maine had a rough start at its statehood. Communities were trying to restitch a political society after three devastating events: Jefferson’s embargo, the War of 1812, and the War of 1816- the “year without a summer.” Two years of unprecedented harsh weather brought famine to the countryside and stimulated significant out migration. In 1820, most of Maine’s population of 300,000 people lived along the coast and by a few inland rivers. In rural areas, many people spent some part of the year cutting wood. 1820s Mainers preferred fishing and lumbering to establishing farms, which they say contributed to the slowing down of Maine’s development as a state.

[00:02:38] In 1820, Maine’s land was 92% forest, (only 1% of which was managed for timber), 11% wetlands, 4% farmland, and 1% urban. In 1829, Moses Greenleaf, one of Maine’s earliest cartographers, predicted a future in which Maine’s northern forests were replaced by thriving farms and small towns along with managed woodlots and town forests. But a combination of events including transportation revolutions, westward migration, and new agricultural technology meant Maine’s farm economy was short-lived. World War I caused crop prices and Maine’s farm economy to crash. The final blow to Maine’s farm economy came with a new invention that replaced horses: the tractor. The demand for hay, which had supported many marginal farms, virtually disappeared. As farmland areas continued to shrink in response to its diminished competitiveness, plow land and hayfield shifted first to pasture, then went back to scraggly, uneven forests. Between 1920 and 2020, Maine’s farmland dropped from 10% of the state’s total acreage to 2%, and forestland increased from 76% to 89%.

[00:03:51] Before Maine’s first legislature met, 9.8 million acres of Maine had already been sold or granted away in the Bingham purchases and royal grants. This meant that Maine’s forests were already owned by mostly out-of-staters. In 1820, 6.6 million acres of mostly forest land were in the settled towns and plantations. In the Act of Statehood, Maine and Massachusetts split 5 million acres of surveyed public lands into two roughly equal parts. This act ended Massachusetts’s interest in Maine lands with a buyout in the 1840s. Between the 1840s and 1870s, public lots in many wildland towns were held in common and undivided tenure with the majority owners and never laid out on the ground. Statewide after 1880, the Maine forest gained some 4 million acres through natural reseeding, which led the forest to return as a timberland.

[00:04:50] Historians say puritanical New Englanders thought that sport fishing and hunting were for ne’er-do-wells; hard work was king. However, this idea began to shift in the late 19th century when resort hotels along the coast and the lakes became popular, marking the shift to Maine as Vacationland. These hotels began to sprout in Rangeley and on Moosehead Lake. Prosperous families summered in high-ceilinged hostelries with captivating views and access to public transportation. The Boston sports participated in a genteel culture of small sporting camps with their guides, guide boats, and refined fly-fishing techniques. These gentry were also among the first to explore the paths up the region’s peaks to see the views.

[00:05:36] Irland names three events that solidified Maine’s status as Vacationland. The first was union membership, the 40-hour week, and higher wages in manufacturing. The second was widespread auto ownership. Blue-collar families now had the means and the time for enjoying activities that were once reserved for the wealthy. Returning GIs in the late 1940s sought well-earned peace and recreation in the forests and brought the kids along. Many were used to camping out and preferred the outdoor air to the Brahmin atmosphere of the old and costly hotels. Third, the turnpike and the Eisenhower era’s interstate highways trimmed travel times dramatically. The gateways to the North woods became busy on the summer weekends, and during hunting season.

[00:06:22] Only a few of the big resort hotels survived the Depression and World War II, which led to more people camping in the Maine woods and eventually purchasing land for camps. This caused people to resort to tenting, then camping with travel trailers, and eventually purchasing land like homes and lots. Rafting and canoeing also increased and caused some conflict. Groups jostled for places at crowded put-in points in major wilderness rivers. Allagash paddlers sought more solitude and fought bitterly against access points that might allow motorized canoes to disturb their peace. Managers of Baxter State Park struggled to contend with large groups holding parties atop Katahdin in defiance of regulations designed for a more conservative age. The age of snowmobiles and all terrain vehicles brought baffling new conflicts to both private and public timberlands managers, now rebranded by the tourism industry in outdoor magazines as the wilderness. For the first time, recreationists were traveling the Maine woods in numbers, and many did not like what they saw. The wildlands people remembered from childhood visits was now full of large clear-cuts with little evidence of regrowth or care for long-term sustainability or for the forest as a home for wildlife and fish.

[00:07:37] By the 1980s, it was clear that vacationland, timberland, and the wilderness did not always comfortably coexist. Wealthy individuals were buying large lots on mountainsides and lakefronts. This threatened to change the view and restrict public access. By the 2010s, hunters were reporting that the extensive road network spawned was shrinking. Roads were blocked and reverted to shrubs. Bridges were now being removed and old hunting haunts could no longer be reached on wheels.

[00:08:08] During the 19th and much of the 20th century, timber harvesting in Maine was relatively benign compared to today’s technology. Amazingly, crews with horses or oxen logged the steep upper slopes of major mountain ranges, even building flumes to run logs to drivable water. Logging and eroding wasn’t seen as a threat to Maine’s regrowing forests and its ecosystems.

[00:08:30] But with the beginning of ecological research in the 1970s, researchers began to dig more deeply into Maine’s ecosystems. They uncovered disturbing facts about the effects of insecticides on birds and the effects of intensive harvesting on soils. Naturalists noticed that some rare species were in danger of disappearing. Conservation efforts are now focused on keeping track of a list of federal and state threatened and endangered species and their habitats.

[00:08:58] In the 21st century, Maine woods came to be threatened by global change: the warming climate, and its ominous implications. Changing temperatures, longer growing seasons, lower snowfall and more frequent intense storms are likely to shift habitats for many trees, shrubs, and animals, and associated creatures. Economic effects will not be far behind. Now scientists and managers are trying to understand how forests can be managed to store more carbon and how they might better adapt to the changing climate that lies ahead. These problems are more complex and difficult than many realize. To date, much of the discussion has been at the level of vague and unhelpful generalizations. The knowledge base is so limited that virtually every constructive suggestion is promptly attacked by skeptics.

[00:09:44] After reviewing two centuries of Maines forests, where does it stand now? Irland writes, “Today, Maine’s forest is nearly as large as it was when Captain John Smith first gazed on it in 1614… to this day, [Maine’s forests] remain largely in private hands.”

[00:10:02] For a century and a half, Maine citizens and successive governments welcomed new mills, dams, power facilities, and railroads as tokens of progress and improved life prospects for Maine people and for immigrants as well. Interregional and international changes in demand, competition, and technology have brought creative destruction to the doorsteps of Maine’s small farms, mill towns, and rural communities, and the entire forest. In mill towns, local civic and economic development groups struggle to find new manufacturers or other occupants for the vacant spaces and to create new housing projects, to bring a few jobs, pay taxes, and provide community stability. The days when passive state and federal governments could gaze calmly over Maine’s forests, as it shifted from wilderness to timberland to vacationland and to an ecosystem in carbon sink have passed. We are only beginning to learn how our forest, the backdrop of Maine’s 200-year history as a state, can continue to produce the benefits.

[00:11:01] In 2020, private owners still owned large swaths of the wildlands, though some had sold development rights in the form of easements. Offshore capital, non-transparent investment funds, and a few wealthy individuals joined the roster of timberland owners. Public and conservation ownership now accounts for 20% of Maine’s land area, an amazing accomplishment, born of intense effort in less than 30 years. Additionally, key reaches of Maine’s re-engineered rivers, especially where dams blocked migratory fish, have been restored to free flowing condition. Yet the recent rearrangements of ownership and expansion of conservation interests has not led to full agreement on the larger purposes of all this activity.

[00:11:44] Irland concludes by asking his audience to contemplate the following questions,

[00:11:48] “Have these changes been done to retain wood production potential and a basic industry? To conduct re-wilding as some advocate to preserve deer or canoeing opportunities to preserve scenic views from the decks of high-end homes on Mountain View lots?”

[00:12:06] What you just heard was Lloyd Irland’s perspective on Maine’s changing forests from 1820 to 2020. Maine Policy Review is a peer reviewed academic journal published by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.

[00:12:17] The editorial team for Maine Policy Review is made up of Joyce Rumery, Linda Silka, and Barbara Harrity. Jonathan Rubin directs the Policy Center. A thank you to Jayson Heim and Kathryn Swacha, scriptwriters for Maine Policy Matters, and to Daniel Soucier, our production consultant.

[00:12:32] In two weeks, we’ll be commemorating Women’s History Month by hearing from the authors of an essay entitled “Our Path: Empower Maine Women Network and Leadership.”

[00:12:42] We would like to thank you for listening to Maine Policy Matters from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine. You can find us online by searching Maine Policy Matters on your web browser. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow us on your preferred social media platform to stay updated on new episode releases. I’m Eric Miller. Thanks for listening and please join us next time on Maine Policy Matters.