Wild Lands: The Missing Piece in Maine’s Land Conservation Mosaic

Mainers are proud of our forest heritage and we often claim to be the “most forested” state in the Union.  Those forest lands are best thought of as a mosaic of uses and ownership types.

We have industrial forest lands owned by corporations, families, and various investment schemes like Real Estate Investment Trusts.  Some lands are in so-called kingdom lots, large parcels owned by wealthy individuals who use them as private play grounds.  There are lands in Federal ownership like Acadia National Park and a small portion of the White Mountain National Forest located in Western Maine.  There are lands owned by the State of Maine, most notably those forests managed as Public Reserve Lands by the Bureau of Parks and Lands and the crown jewel of State ownership, Baxter State Park.  And then there is a vast array of “conservation lands” owned by local land trusts and by state and national conservation organizations like Nature Conservancy, Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Forest Society of Maine.  Maine is a leader in the national land trust movement. Increasingly ownership of forest lands in Maine is split between owners.  Many acres of the timber land in Maine have management rights owned by families or corporations with “conservation” easements held by environmental groups.  These easements limit in various ways what uses are allowed on the lands.

This mosaic of ownership types means that there are many different patterns of use.  Much of the land is in multiple use management (see my blog The Myth of Pinchot) with a mix of timber production and recreation allowed, constrained by some conservation limits.  Many of the public reserve lots owned by the State are managed in this way.  Managed is a key word here.  In almost every case, forest lands are managed to meet some set of human needs, depending on the mission and history of the ownership.

One large land trust currently manages its conservation lands with a goal to improve forest health.  The result is a long-term timber harvest plan designed to make the lands healthier.  Of course, forest health in this case is a human concept.  Healthy forests are those that meet human ideas of what forests should look like rather than natural processes of growth and decay the forest would experience without our intervention.

This example shows the one use type that is clearly missing in Maine’s forest mosaic – true wild lands.  The idea of wild lands or wilderness is that nature, if given a chance, can function very well without our management.  The ethic here is that nature does not exist solely to meet human needs.  Our domination of nature need not be so complete that every aspect of nature is directed by and for us.  Forests are healthy in their own way when we do not manage them.

Some in the environmental community have given up on the idea of nature as something distinct from humanity.   For example, the former chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, a group once dedicated to setting aside parts of nature to exist without human influence, now argues that nature has been so changed by humans that it is “domesticated.”  So our only hope is to manage nature for our ends.  In the words of writer Bill McKibben we have seen “the end of nature.”

While we should celebrate the many land conservation successes in Maine, we should also recognize that we too have accepted this narrow view that nature, even in conservation ownership, is to be managed to meet human ends.  So we too are missing the last piece of the land mosaic, wild lands.  The alternative is to dedicate some lands to rewilding, the object of a growing movement around the world.  Rewilding is a simple idea.  You buy a piece of land and then place an easement on it that expunges all the human uses typically allowed for forest lands – timber harvest, hydro power production, all types of recreation, wind turbines, housing, roads, and scientific research.  In its most radical version, humans stay out of wild lands because the land there is not for us to exploit, to recreate in, or even to study.

Rewilding is an expression of human humility.  It says that we are not always wise enough to know what should be done with the land and that the land exists for more than just us.  Other species have a right, to put it in human terms, to places just for them. Humans have appropriated the vast majority of the planet for our species, rewilding means leaving a little for all the other species.

One of the most eloquent expressions of the ethic behind rewilding is Canadian writer J.B. MacKinnon’s The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be.  Of course MacKinnon’s perspective reflects a long line of thinking in this country, tracing back through Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, to Henry David Thorough and George Perkins Marsh in the 19th Century.

Let’s put this in the current Maine context.  It was laudable for the Quimby family to give land and money to the Federal Government to establish the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.  That will be an economic boon to the Katahdin region in the decades to come.  Its use will be a nice complement to the industrial forest lands in the region and to Baxter State Park.  But this is not enough.

We will need the vision and courage in the future to find large parcels of land in Maine to set aside and walk away from, so that nature decides how they function.  Only then will we complete the mosaic of Maine’s forest landscape.  Rewilding is the right and good thing to do.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.