The Watchmen of North Maine Woods Inc.
North Maine Woods, Inc. guards an area bigger than Connecticut.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
On or about June 15 of this year, the Maine Department of Conservation will liberate more than forty thousand acres of forestland surrounding Seboomook Lake. The so-called Seboomook Unit, a picturesque forest landscape just north of Moosehead Lake, was purchased in 2003 as part of a major Land for Maine’s Future project along the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Until this summer, however, the public still had to pay for access to this ostensibly public land.
The sticking point was the 20 Mile Checkpoint. It took several years of negotiations for the state to persuade the gatekeeper to move its barrier on 20 Mile Road a few miles north to above historic Pittston Farm in order to grant free public access to Seboomook.
The gate’s owner, North Maine Woods, Inc. (NMW), is a non-profit organization that manages recreational use of privately owned woodlands for the corporations that own, well, the North Maine Woods. Depending on who you talk to, NMW either performs a heroic service by facilitating public access to private property, or it is a villain, walling off 3.5 million acres of forests, lakes, rivers, and streams from average citizens who can’t afford access.
Alan Stearns, deputy director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, falls into the first category. “Without North Maine Woods and without the gate system, the risk is that land owners would not allow public access,” he says. “North Maine Woods is a very successful system for allowing public access to private lands.”
In the other camp, literally, is Rick Sylvester, owner of Seboomook Wilderness Campground. “I have opposed them and their fees for ten years now,” says Sylvester. “They’ve almost driven me out of business. For my customers to have to pay a fee to get to my privately owned business is absurd.”
Much of the year, North Maine Woods, Inc., consists of just three people operating out of a former lumber baron’s house in downtown Ashland, a gritty little Aroostook County timber town that bills itself as the “Gateway to North Maine Woods.” Executive director Al Cowperthwaite, an avuncular white-haired gentleman, is very clear about his mission, which he describes as “keeping all the property open to the public.”
“In order to keep the land open,” says Cowperthwaite, “we have to protect the owners’ interests.”
Al Cowperthwaite has run the organization for thirty-three of its thirty-eight years. NMW evolved out of the Maine Logging Road Committee, a group formed in 1966 by the paper companies that once owned much of the Pine Tree State. (It took on its present name in 1971.) Its responsibility was to manage public access to the estimated five thousand miles of logging roads and another five thousand of unimproved skidder trails that ribbon Maine’s industrial forestlands.
NMW exists to administer a unified and coordinated access policy for the more than two dozen major landowners in the region. From its Ashland headquarters, it oversees a far-flung network of some eighteen checkpoints and five hundred campsites, ranging from Estcourt Checkpoint in the north to 20 Mile Checkpoint (renamed Northern Road Checkpoint after the move) in the south. To accomplish this mission, NMW employs a seasonal crew of seventy-five staffers to man the checkpoints and maintain the campsites in an area roughly equivalent to Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
Al Cowperthwaite prides himself on running a very frugal operation. “If this were a state or federal agency,” he says of the skeleton crew on duty in the Ashland office, “there would be a lot of people running around here.”
While old Maine hands still sometimes refer to Maine’s Unorganized Territories as “paper company lands,” there are no longer any paper companies among the NMW membership. Most members are now investment groups and timber management companies such as Huber Timber, LLC; Irving Woodlands, LLC; Merriweather, LLC; Pingree Associates; Prentice & Carlisle, Inc.; and Timbervest, LLC. It might surprise some Mainers to learn that Plum Creek — the best known and most controversial of the state’s major landowners, owing to its huge development proposal around Moosehead Lake — is not a NMW member and charges no fees for recreating on its lands.
The Nature Conservancy, by virtue of owning 182,000 acres along the St. John River, is also a member. Bill Patterson, Northern Maine program manager for the Nature Conservancy, considers NMW “one of the few examples of successful cross-ownership cooperation in northern Maine” and is a great admirer of Cowperthwaite’s management skills.
“The St. John lands are completely behind the North Maine Woods gates, but none of that money ever comes to the Nature Conservancy in any form,” says Patterson. “North Maine Woods members pay no dues, make no contributions, and get no dividends. It’s revenue neutral. That makes Al Cowperthwaite be pretty shrewd. Al and his committee of oversight are very careful. There’s no surplus and no deficit.”
Major policy decisions are made by a twelve-member board consisting of representatives of landowners that possess at least twenty thousand acres (one township) in the North Maine Woods. The state of Maine has two non-voting members on the NMW board: the commissioner of the Department of Conservation and the commissioner of theDepartment of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
In point of fact, Al Cowperthwaite is actually projecting a slight $11,000 surplus in his $1 million operating budget for 2009. The non-profit’s primary source of income is the $741,000 it gets from gate fees — currently a six dollars a day road use fee for Maine residents (ten dollars a day for out-of-staters) and a nine dollar a night camping fee (ten dollars for out-of-staters). Children under fifteen and adults seventy or older are free, regardless of where they are from. Its major expense is the $701,000 it pays in wages and payroll taxes.
Cowperthwaite says NMW has made an effort not to raise its fees in recent years, but holding the line becomes increasingly difficult as public recreational use of the industrial forest has plummeted. From a peak use of 297,266 visitor days in 1999, visitation has declined steadily to 173,135 visitor days in 2008. Camping is down from 49,564 visitor days to just 21,388. Fishing is down from 32,554 to 19,936 visitor days. Deer hunting has fallen from 28,095 to 10,852 visitor days. Even bear hunting, a lucrative sideline for NMW (bear hunting outfitters pay $100 for each of 2,700 beat baiting sites) has fallen off, from a high of 8,222 visitor days in 2004 to 6,388 last year.
The decline in recreational use of the North Maine Woods, which is mirrored in falling attendance at Baxter State Park and Acadia National Park, is generally seen as part of a national trend away from traditional outdoor recreation, a function both of Americans’ addiction to the virtual reality of the Internet and the all too real problems of high gas prices and an economy in recession. Even NMW’s critics do not blame the gate fees for the declining use of the forests.
I don’t think the fees have anything to do with it. It’s the economy. People aren’t traveling up here like they did before,” says Stu Kallgren, president of the Maine Leaseholders Association, a group that represents people who have camps on leased land in the North Woods.
There are an estimated one thousand private camps behind NMW gates, but the fact that visitations to leaseholds are down from 86,955 visitor days to 66,200 may have more to do with the fact that there aren’t as many leaseholders as there used to be.
Bruce Pratt, a writer and educator from Eddington, leased a camp lot at the north end of Moosehead Lake from Great Northern Paper until it liquidated its properties and the new owners sold him the half-acre of leased land for $28,000. Pratt, a long-time critic of what he calls NMW’s “usurious charges,” doesn’t dispute that the member landowners can charge fees for access to their properties. He just doesn’t like the way they sometimes go about it.
In a 2007 opinion piece, Pratt objected to the NMW policy of charging per person rather than per vehicle, and charging per day whether visitors were actually using NMW campsites or not. “Imagine if the state decided to collect tolls on the Maine Turnpike by the person, not the vehicle, and assessed an extra fee for every day the occupants were in the state,” Pratt wrote in Bangor Metro. “Would Maine’s chamber of commerce let that slide? Yet in the Seboomook Lake region in northern Maine, visitors and camp owners endure just this situation.”
Pratt complained that it cost thirty-five dollars a day for his brother’s family of five “to sit on my porch, on land that I own and pay taxes on,” based on the seven dollars a day camping fees NMW was charging in 2007. Pratt, like many leaseholders, wouldn’t have minded paying a modest annual fee for the security of living behind NMW gates. He just found the fees excessive.
Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan, for instance, is a leaseholder with a cabin behind NMW gates at Caucomagomac Lake. “I’m in the [group that believes] that the gates control access and you know where people are going to be,” says McGowan. “I know people who have camps behind the NMW gates that never lock them. If someone goes through the gate, NMW has their license number and vehicle description.”
Seboomook campground owner Rick Sylvester, however, is no fan of the gate system. “Things are going to get better for me because they are moving that gate,” he says, “but hundreds of camp owners behind the gates will still have to pay North Maine Woods fees to get to their camps.”
NMW does offer leaseholders and internal landowners annual passes for thirty-five dollars per person and guest passes for sixty dollars per person. Yet even though folks in northern Maine tend to take private property rights very seriously, they also tend to balk at paying gates fees to use the North Maine Woods. That sets up a constant tension between landowners and recreational users.
The claim most frequently asserted for the public’s right to recreate on private land in the Unorganized Territories is Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Law, which assesses managed woodlands at valuations far below fair market value. The law was put in place in 1970 to encourage paper companies to hold onto vast tracts of land while providing good jobs for Maine people. Now that paper companies no longer own the land, the statute is frequently cited as a justification for the public use of private property.
Maine Leaseholders Association president Stu Kallgren is one of those who believe Maine residents are “getting ripped off” by being charged gate fees. “We have given those landowners huge, huge subsidies in the form of tree-growth taxation,” he argues. “If they’re going to charge people for recreational access, we should revisit their tree-growth subsidy.”
“Because they don’t pay their fair share of taxes — that’s one of the reasons we have such a high-tax state,” echoes Ray Campbell, president of the Millinocket Fin & Feather Club. The sportsmen’s club fought access fees for fifteen years, from 1986 when Great Northern Paper first put up gates, to 2001 when the club lost a Maine Supreme Judicial Court case seeking to force the new owners of Great Northern Paper’s land to honor an agreement the paper company had made to provide free access. “They are getting a huge subsidy in tree growth,” insists Campbell.
David Ledew, director of the Property Tax Division of the Maine Revenue Service, insists that’s not the case: “There is no lost revenue to the state.” It’s true that the 7.5 million acres of industrial forests are taxed at a much lower tree growth valuation. But the Unorganized Territories receive no education subsidies or municipal revenue sharing. And there are substantial penalties — typically 20 percent of the value of the parcel — when land is removed from the tree-growth category.
Ray Campbell doesn’t buy this argument, and it ruffles his feathers that the limited liability companies (LLC) that now own much of the North Woods avoid paying real estate transfer taxes by selling stock rather than real estate. It also bugs him that no one really knows whose woods these are anymore. The corporate veil of secrecy surrounding LLCs is such, says Campbell, that “the state doesn’t even know who owns the land.” Al Cowperthwaite concedes that even he sometimes has no idea who he is working for.
Regardless of who actually owns the North Maine Woods, Ray Campbell adamantly maintains that the public has a right to use them based on colonial ordinances and Maine law. “Everything behind their gates — the fur, fish, game, fowl, and water — belongs in common to the people of Maine,” he states. “Anybody going behind their gates is going to access what already belongs to them.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem