Can Looking to the Past Protect the Future of Maine’s Woods?

Communities around the state are taking control of their own forests again.

community forests in maine
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Jerry Monkman

In Kingfield, home to fewer than a thousand people, generation after generation has paddled and fished on Shiloh Pond. The pond is small but deep, nestled in foothills about a half-hour’s drive from Sugarloaf ski resort. The surrounding woods are mostly young, but some mature groves near the shore may never have met a saw —  a rare thing in Maine. An ecologist with the state’s Natural Areas Program visited last year and cored a hemlock. It was 180 years old. She also noted two sugar maples, each about a meter in diameter, and estimated they must have been at least 200 years old. Together, pond and forest provide habitat for bears, beavers, kingfishers, loons, and wood frogs, plus the brook trout that lure local fly-fishermen.

Despite a long tradition of public use, the 215-acre parcel was family owned, and two years ago, it hit the market. Shortly, Betsy Cook, the Maine state program director at the Trust for Public Land, had fielded a flood of phone calls from Kingfield residents anxious about possibly losing access to the land under new owners. They wanted to know if the town might be able to acquire the land as a community forest.

The concept of community forests is about as old as European settlement in New England. Colonial villages would designate certain woods as communal holdings, managed in the general interest (similar to how pastures were held in common in Britain). The trees provided firewood for home heating and timber for building schools, churches, and town halls. Although 170 Maine towns still hold deeds to their own woodlots, many of those properties have fallen into disuse.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that interest in a new model of community forest took root in Maine. A group of Washington County residents, worried that a timber company was mismanaging large holdings around West Grand Lake, founded a land trust, raised millions of dollars to buy the tract, and turned 27,000 acres into the Downeast Lakes Community Forest. As with town-owned forests of yore (and unlike many present-day preserves managed by land trusts), sustainable harvesting was allowed. Instead of profiting a landowner, timber sales covered costs of ongoing conservation work and recreational infrastructure — emphasis had shifted from resource extraction to environmental stewardship and hiking, biking, and paddling.

The Trust for Public Land has been advocating that model throughout Maine as a way to protect forestland on local terms, with either municipalities or land trusts taking the lead. Cook and her staff help facilitate public discussion of land-use plans, navigate real-estate deals, and pool funding from private philanthropy and state and federal grants (in 2008, the Trust and several other groups lobbied Congress to create a national fund for community forests, and the U.S. Forest Service now disburses more than $4 million a year for such projects). 

A bonus for town-owned forests is that surplus timber revenue flows straight into municipal budgets. When instead a land trust establishes a community forest, Cook and her team encourage formal arrangements that still see surpluses funneled into local government coffers, especially to fund education and conservation programs. This past year, the Trust for Public Land guided the creation of two more Maine community forests: the 1,400-acre Tiger Hill Community Forest, in Sebago, and the 980-acre Bethel Community Forest. The organization has also been trying to export the concept. It has caught on in pockets elsewhere around the country, but instances of direct town ownership remain most common in  New England.

This month, at Kingfield’s annual town meeting, residents are set to vote to officially acquire the Shiloh Pond parcel. So long as the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t postpone the meeting, another Maine woodlot will be on municipal rolls. “The reason that’s been so successful here is because of our history of local government,” Cook says. “I used to work in North Carolina, and this idea just didn’t catch on, because their local government happens at a county level. New Englanders are used to going to town meetings, making decisions, and having real local, democratic control over their futures.”