Good News In The Maine Woods (Lessons for Conservation)

The Maine Woods is the largest undeveloped (not untouched) region in the eastern United States and is part of RESTORE’s vision for a 3.2 million-acre national park. Photo George Wuerthner 

Recently, Maine’s U.S. Senators Angus King and Susan Collins introduced legislation in Congress to authorize the expansion of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine. The bill would permit the acquisition of up to 43,000 acres of land between the town of Millinocket and the current southern border of the monument.

The town of Millinocket, Maine is a former mill town that is now gateway to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and Baxter State Park.  Legislation introduced by Maine Senators Collins and King would enlarge the monument and move the boundary closer to Millinocket. Photo George Wuerthner 

The 87,500-acre monument lies east of Baxter State Park. Combined with the 210,000-acre state park, the 46,270-acre Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area owned by The Nature Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club’s 102,000-acre Maine Woods Initiative, the area is the largest tract of protected wildlands in the state.

Fourth Debsconeag Lake in The Nature Conservancy’s Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area. Photo George Wuerthner 

The support for enlarging Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument by both Senators provides a lesson in conservation history that I’ve seen repeatedly. Both Senators initially opposed the proposal for a unit of the National Park System in the Maine Woods. They wrote a letter to President Obama outlining “serious reservations.” However, to their credit they are now supporters of the monument.

 Rafters on Big A Falls West Branch Penoscot River, Maine. Photo George Wuerthner

Even though there is often strong local opposition to new parks, wilderness or other public lands designations, over time people generally see the benefits of public lands and special protection and come to support it.

In an article I wrote for Sierra Magazine, I detailed how local opposition to parks, monuments, and other protective designations has nearly always turned into local support.

For instance, when Grand Teton National Park was being proposed, locals in Jackson, Wyoming, opposed the park, suggesting that Jackson would become a “ghost town” if the park were established. Anyone who has visited Jackson, Wyoming lately knows it is anything but a ghost town.

The Maine Woods are a vast forested and lake studded area that reminds me of Alaska. If the Maine Woods National Park vision were fully realized, it would be a huge carbon reserve. Photo George Wuerthner 

When RESTORE the North Woods first proposed creating a national park and preserve in the Maine Woods in 1994, there was almost universal opposition to the idea. Both of these Senators voiced their opposition (King was elected governor of Maine that year), as well as nearly all “conservation groups” in the state. Local opposition in Millinocket, the principal gateway community, and the rest of Northern Maine, was almost unanimous.

What happened to change the opposition to reluctant support to full embracement of the park is a tale worth telling.


The idea for a preserve in Maine Woods has a long history. Henry David Thoreau made three trips to the Maine Woods in the 1840-50s. He suggested that its wildlands, especially the area surrounding Katahdin, Maine’s greatest mountain, should be protected as a “national preserve.”

Henry David Thoreau first proposed that the Mount Katahdin be set aside as a “national preserve” in the 1800s. Photo George Wuerthner

On and off discussions for some kind of parkland occurred throughout the ensuing decades. There was even a proposal to create a million-acre national park focused on Katahdin in the 1930s.

Part of the problem, however, was that unlike the western United States, where there were extensive areas of public land, almost all of northern Maine was then owned by forestry companies and timber barons. Thus, creating a park would require a substantial investment in land acquisition.

Dacey Pond in 210,000 acre Baxter State Park, named for Percival Baxter who acquired the land from timber interests for the park’s creation. Photo George Wuerthner 

By the 1920s, efforts to protect Maine’s highest peak as a park intensified. Maine’s Governor, Percival Baxter, advocated the creation of a state park focused on Katahdin. But the Maine legislature, heavily influenced by timber interests, refused to go along. In the end, Baxter decided he would buy the land himself and donate it to the state for a park.

Winter sunset on Mt Katahdin, Maine.  Photo George Wuerthner 

Fast forward to the late 1980s. I was working on several books about New England, including one on Vermont and another on Maine. During my research, I discovered that several large areas of Vermont in what is known as the Northeast Kingdom, as well as in Maine surrounding Katahdin, had previously been considered for acquisition as national parks or national forests.

When I contacted conservation groups in the region, I asked if anyone was proposing new public land acquisitions. I was told that people in New England didn’t support new public lands, especially any controlled by the federal government.

View from Brousseau Mountain by Little Averill Lake, Northeast Kingdom, Vermont. Photo George Wuerthner 

I found that answer unacceptable. So, both in my books, and by writing supportive letters to the editor and other media, I began to promote the idea of new national parks for the region. I identified the Nulgehan Basin of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom as a potential area for land acquisition and the creation of a Northeast Kingdom National Park or some other federal holding. I also pointed out that a similar situation existed in Maine, with huge acreage of forested lands owned by timber companies that could be acquired for a park.

In addition, I wrote letters and commentaries to local papers and for regional newsletters arguing that parks should be created. I wrote Congressional representatives asking for them to consider new land acquisitions for parks, and so on.

This provoked opposition from local residents. But at least there was some public discussion.

Then in 1988, the editor of Wilderness Magazine, T. H. Watkins, contacted me. He had seen some of my letters and articles. He asked me to write a piece for the magazine.

 Autumn along the West Branch Penoscot River by Big A Falls, Maine. Photo George Wuerthner

During my research for the article, called Northeast Kingdoms: Is it time to rescue the last of New England’s Wilderness?, Watkins put me in contact with the Wilderness Society’s New England Representative, Michael Kellett. Kellett and I hit it off immediately. We both had a similar passion for wildlands and national parks.

In March, 1989, The Wilderness Society unveiled the organization’s proposal for “A New Maine Woods Reserve” (Kellett, 1989). The proposal called for acquisition and protection of an area with roughly the same location and configuration as the “Maine Woods National Park” concept described in my 1988 article.

The reason for promoting a large national park had to do with the limited public land ownership in the state. Only about 5% of Maine’s land area was publicly owned, one of the lowest proportions of any U.S. state. The vast majority was owned by a handful of large timber companies and investors.

Kids and canoeist on the shore of Lobster Lake, one of the many wildlands lakes in the Maine Woods. Photo George Wuerthner 

Shortly after our meeting, Michael Kellett decided to focus his efforts on creating a 3.2 million acre Maine Woods National Park. With the help of another New England conservationist, David Carle, we created RESTORE: The North Woods in 1992 to promote the idea. I have served on RESTORE’s board ever since. Soon after, wildlands advocate Jym St. Pierre joined the RESTORE staff as Maine Director, a position he still holds.

RESTORE board members on Mount Kino, Moosehead Lake, Maine. Photo George Wuerthner

Our plan was not entirely new. We followed in the footsteps of a New Hampshire wildlands activist, Jamie Sayen, who had previously published a proposal for a “Preserve Appalachian Wilderness” system in 1987. Sayen later joined the RESTORE board.

Meanwhile, we got a breakthrough when U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont wrote me to say he liked the idea of a Northeast Kingdom National Park or some other new public lands acquisition in Vermont. Leahy eventually got funding for a Northern Forest Lands Study that included lands from upstate New York to Maine, which, among other things, identified threats to these lands and proposed new conservation initiatives.

Webster Lake, Allagash Wilderness Waterway, part of the National Wild and Scenic River system,  Maine is part of RESTORE’s 3.2 million acre national park proposal. Photo George Wuerthner

A review of the timber industry in Maine demonstrated that in many instances, rather than invest in the modernization of mills, the industry trend was to sell its holdings and reinvest in the South where the climate was more favorable for tree growth, and labor laws were more favorable to industry. During the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, millions of acres of the Maine Woods were sold, often to investors or other timber interests.

For instance, in 1998, Sappi sold 905,000 acres to Plum Creek Timber Company. This trend has continued until today. Meanwhile, from 1980 to 2016, two-thirds of Maine’s remaining 25 pulp and paper mills were shuttered, others were struggling, thousands of mill and woods workers lost their jobs, and mill towns were devastated. Today, fewer than 10 paper mills are operating in the state.

Several recent books document the demise of Maine’s forest industry, including Shredding Paper by Michael Hillard, Haywire by Andrew Egan and Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault.

Much of northern Maine was a “paper colony” for large timber interests. Photo George Wuerthner 

The situation in Maine was unique. Most of the private property in northern Maine was owned by the timber industry or investors. So, as with the Sappi sale, it was possible to acquire a large piece of property by dealing with a handful of property owners. Had the federal government been prepared to buy the Sappi lands, it could have created the second largest national park in the entire eastern United States (after the Everglades).

Much of northern Maine is part of the Unorganized Townships with more moose than permanent human residents. Photo George Wuerthner 

Another unusual feature of northern Maine is “unorganized townships,” which cover half the acreage in the state. Most have no permanent residents, though there are scattered camps. No one would have to move from these lands to create a large national park. Existing camps could be grandfathered.

Recognizing the opportunity this created for public acquisition, RESTORE began to lobby for public land purchases within the boundary of our proposal. Such legislation would authorize the federal government to buy from willing sellers any property that came up for sale there.

The same process has been used to create other national parks, national wildlife refuges and national forests in the eastern United States, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, White Mountain National Forest and Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

Black Branch, Nulhegan River, Silivio O. Conti National Wildlife Refuge, Vermont. Photo George Wuerthner

The 39,500-acre Silvio O. Conte NWR acquisition was a direct result of the debate that was started over a national park in the Northeast Kingdom, and later the Northern Forest Land Study, which identified the Nulhegan Basin as critical wildlife habitat.

At the same time, various groups and agencies acquired more lands in the Maine Woods, including the Appalachian Mountain Club, The Nature Conservancy, the State of Maine and others. Meanwhile RESTORE continued to advocate for a major national park unit in the Maine Woods.


For years, RESTORE had a table at the annual Maine Common Ground Fair where we advocated for our park proposal. One day a woman stopped by and chatted with RESTORE’s staff. That woman was Roxanne Quimby who at the time owned the natural skin care company Burt’s Bees. Quimby had started her business in Maine. Her kids had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, including the Hundred Mile Wilderness, which was within our park proposal. She was intrigued by the idea of a Maine Woods National Park.

Large old growth eastern white pine along the Hundred Mile Wilderness of the Appalachian Trail. Photo George Wuerthner

After further conversations between RESTORE staff and Quimby, she began purchasing lands that ultimately she hoped to donate to the people of the United States as a new national park unit. The opportunity for such a donation came after President Barrack Obama was elected. By then, many conservation groups and others were supportive. Using the authority of the Antiquities Act Obama accepted Quimby’s land donation and created Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument in 2016.


Forward to the announcement last month that US. Senators King and Collins are sponsoring legislation to allow the expansion of Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument. Local people have come to accept and, in many cases, enthusiastically support a national park unit in the Maine Woods, I have no doubt that over time it will be expanded further.

Most importantly, conservation takes years, sometimes decades, to implement. RESTORE began its advocacy in the 1990s and we are still working to implement our vision for a 3.2-million-acre national park in Maine, as well as advocating for new national parks elsewhere through our New National Parks campaign.

The White Mountains of New Hampshire are  one of RESTORE’s proposed parks  in our New National Parks Campaign. Photo George Wuerthner

Grand Teton National Park was first authorized as a national park in the 1920s, but the park’s creation in its current form did not occur until 1950. The same for parks now covering the Brooks Range in Alaska. In the 1930s, wilderness proponent Bob Marshall advocated that everything north of the Yukon River should be set aside as a giant national park. In the 1960s, the Arctic Wildlife Refuge was established. In the 1980s, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act put much of the land north of the Yukon River into federally protected status. This includes the Gates of the Arctic NP, Kobuk Valley NP, Noatak Preserve, Koyukuk NWR, Yukon Flats NWR, Selawik NWR, and a significant expansion of the Arctic NWR, plus numerous Wild and Scenic River designations.

The other lesson is that the stars must line up. Often a proposal will simmer for years, then suddenly, the right circumstances permit it to be realized. To borrow a quote from RESTORE board member and long-time conservation advocate Brock Evans, it takes endless pressure, endlessly applied.

Finally to all of you with your own ideas and proposals.  Do not become discouraged if you first do not succeed. Think Big. Stay true to your vision. You never know when and how it might be realized.

As the Poet Gary Synder wrote:

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light


  1. Glenn Hamburger Avatar
    Glenn Hamburger

    Excellent write up George

  2. Dan Lynch Avatar
    Dan Lynch

    A good story.

    I personally would like to see lower Hell’s Canyon turned into a National Park. It’s stunningly beautiful and should be a national treasure, but currently is mostly privately owned by millionaires and billionaires who use it as a tax deductible vacation home / ranch. The steep, arid canyon is not very productive for ranching, and subject to numerous wildfires. Despite all the hoopla about preserving the ranching lifestyle, no one actually makes a living by ranching in the canyon.

    1. Jeff Avatar

      “Despite all the hoopla about preserving the ranching lifestyle, no one actually makes a living by ranching in the canyon.”

      And it’s a good thing! Cattle ranching is extremely ecologically and environmentally destructive on arid lands.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    That’s good news! Thanks George, and for all you do too.

  4. Marc Bedner Avatar

    The full name of the proposed Maine Woods National Park and Preserve is not just a reference to Thoreau’s use of the term “preserve.” Hunting is generally banned in national parks in the lower 48 states, but permitted in Alaska “national parks and preserves.” The area just outside the Yellowstone National Park boundary has notoriously become a site for wolf killing. There is no good reason to extend the Alaska model of national parks and hunting preserves to the wolf habitat of the Maine Woods.

    1. Jeff Avatar

      I would support a compromise: No hunting with guns or other such weapons, and no hunting of anything but natural prey animals (i.e, no hunting of wolves, bears, or mountain lions).

  5. Nicholas Morrell Avatar
    Nicholas Morrell

    the problem is, that the 3.2 million acres proposal doesnt go far enough. To preserve the North Woods,in terms of its natural character, requires conservation of most of it, if not ALL of it. the Woods covers anywhere from 10 million to 10.5 million to 12 million acres. Thats an area that would be about 3 times the size of Death Valley, the largest park in the lower 48, and be the second largest national park or preserve in the system, behind Wrangell St Elias , which covers 13.2 million acres.

    as we see with many existing areas, money doesnt come along with the park, at least right away. the first budget of the woods and Waters monument was $400, 000, not nearly enough to manage a area covering almost 90000 acres.
    How to address that? Pass a law mandating funding parks, monuments etc as part of their creation, whether by Congress or the president, and making that funding good for 10 years.. Lets say that the areas get 2000 dollars an acre, up to 1 million acres in size. so lets say President Biden sets aside 400000 acres in Nevada to protect Spirit Mountain? that new monument would have a budget of $800 million a year (well 560 million, after payouts to its state, local and tribal partners). thats enough to hire staff, put up signage, put in park infrastructure and tend to the very delicate balance between protecting areas in their natural state, and allowing people to come to the area and enjoy them.

    Under this proposed system, a 10 million acres North Woods preserve would get 2 billion in funding a year. that funds hiking trials, snowmobile trails, , signage, lodges, and so on. Thats a lot of money, but in a big park or other protected area, that money gets spent on a whole host of things very quickly.

    To get support from the states and local counties and native tribes, I would give each of them 10% of the budget of these protected areas each year, for a total of 30% of the budget. So , for instance, Maine would get $200 million a year from the budget of the North Woods, which would help, for instance, address backlogs at its state parks. Just as the feds have big maintenance backlogs, so, too, do the states. The unincorporated territory would get 200 million as well, but how exactly that money would be dispersed is an open question. Its not like in organized counties, where the pot gets split up based on how many counties have the park or preserve in their borders.

    Putting money behind these new parks, monuments etc, is something that frankly should have been done decades ago. the Antiquities Act, as important and powerful a law as it is, is also an unfunded mandate. There would be a lot less gripping against conservation if money came along with it , in a significant amount. Telling counties and local towns. ‘ You’re getting a piece of the money too” would go a long way as well. Putting significant money behind our protected areas is something I expect a overwhelming number of people in this country would support. We spend something like 250 times as much on the military than we do on our national parks , changing that ratio to say, 2 to 1, would have loads of benefits.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Fully agree about prioritizing restoring native ecosystems. The problem is that modern humans, including Americans, don’t prioritize the natural environment. They prioritize money, material things, and their unnatural lifestyles. I agree that if money came along with park proposals there would be less opposition to them, but that money has to come from somewhere and someone would complain about that.

      We need a major mental and spiritual evolution of humans. If everyone thought and felt as one with all life, people wouldn’t act in environmentally and ecologically harmful manners. Without that evolution, it’s like Whac-A-Mole trying to stop all this bad stuff or trying to fix the harms it causes.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner