• True North

    Securing one of America's great recreation areas in Maine.
    By Kirsten Weir
    Photographs by Bridget Besaw


ith a deep growl of the engine,

John Willard’s floatplane rumbles along the surface of Moosehead Lake before drifting upward like a dragonfly taking wing. Beneath the two-seater plane, a mosaic of green and blue unfurls in every direction. Willard points out landmarks, ticking off the names of ponds, lakes, rivers and mountains. Even Willard, whose family has owned The Birches, a local wilderness resort, for more than 40 years, can’t name some of the smaller ponds and streams—there are simply too many of them.

These North Woods are working forests, owned and managed by timber companies since the 19th century, and more recently the site of scattered residential development. But the woodland expanses outside Willard’s cockpit will remain largely undeveloped and open to the public, thanks to a landmark conservation easement that protects more than 363,000 acres around Moosehead Lake. In May, the Conservancy finalized the deal in partnership with timber company Plum Creek, which owns the land, and the Forest Society of Maine, which will enforce the easement.

The easement, combined with other protected areas recently purchased by the Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club, links up a huge unbroken stretch of forest the size of Yellowstone National Park. “Moosehead Lake was the missing puzzle piece in the middle,” says Mike Tetreault, who directs the Conservancy’s work in Maine.

Wildlife depends on this region, which supports some of the largest populations of black bear, American marten and Canada lynx in the Lower 48 United States, says Daniel Harrison, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine. It boasts a booming moose population, and its streams provide crucial refuge for the Eastern brook trout, which has been reduced or eliminated throughout most of its native range. “We have this incredibly unique wildlife resource here,” Harrison says.

Countless people depend on the land as well. Traditionally, local forestry companies have opened their properties to the public, providing access for hunting, fishing, paddling, snowmobiling and other recreational activities. Dan Legere, owner of the Maine Guide Fly Shop in Greenville (the only sizable town near the lake; population 1,645), has led fishermen into the forest for 30 years. You can travel for days without meeting another person, he says. “The only sounds you hear are the sounds of the woods and the wilderness. It’s solitude, and people fall in love with it.”

Indeed, generations of New Englanders have learned to love the outdoors here in Maine, enjoying privately owned timberland as if it were their own. Lifelong Maine resident John Simko, former town manager of Greenville, recalls a childhood spent snowmobiling on remote trails where the only signs of civilization were occasional logging roads. “It was just a long stretch of woods,” he says. “People here are spoiled by the fact that this land has been available to them for years.”

Yet over the past few decades, timber companies have increasingly turned to real estate development to enhance profits—and with new private landowners have come more and more “no trespassing” signs. “The snowmobile trail I used as a kid? Now there’s a big gate across it and a big house there,” Simko says. “That piece of my Moosehead experience is gone.”
The new easement eliminates the development threat for most of the area around Moosehead Lake and ensures public access for recreational activities. Plum Creek has donated additional land and more than $1 million to the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands to build and maintain hiking trails, trailhead parking areas and public boat launches. Sustainable logging, as certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, will continue in specially designated parts of the easement area. The overall plan, however, also allows for limited development in designated spots. About 96 percent of the property is protected by easement, whereas 4 percent is zoned for future growth, including homes and two lakeside resorts.

The development does not sit well with some critics, but the Conservancy’s Tetreault notes that Plum Creek had the right to develop, one way or another. This landmark deal concentrates development into a small, carefully controlled area, he says, while securing the woods, streams and lakes for generations to come. “This forest is one of the healthiest temperate forests on earth,” he says. “Our goal is to ensure it stays this way.”

And now we can celebrate Maine’s North Woods as they are and as they will remain: green and blue and open to us all.

Watch a Video and Discover Moosehead Lake

"The only sounds you hear are the sounds of the woods and the wilderness. It’s solitude, and people fall in love with it."

Dan Legere, owner of the Maine Guide Fly Shop