The Universal Notebook: It's time for a Maine Woods National Park

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Daughter Nora tells people she lives in Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s fantasy-land where the White Witch decreed that it always be winter, though never Christmas.

Actually, she lives in the White Mountains, where she and her fiance work for conservation groups.

Our whole family was up in the Whites last month for a nephew’s wedding at the Omni Mt. Washington Resort. The great hotel sits in the bowl of Mt. Washington Valley like the palace of some hibernal queen surrounded by pristine, snow-covered mountains and woodlands. A winter wonderland. Narnia, indeed.

Mt. Washington Valley remains relatively unspoiled thanks to the Weeks Act, which President William H. Taft signed into law on March 1, 1911. The Weeks Act authorized the federal government to purchase lands in the east to establish national forests.

A century later, we could use another Weeks Act. The more wild land we protect today, the better the future will be – for us, for posterity, for all living things. That’s why I support the creation of a Maine Woods National Park.

I know, I know – it’s not a popular idea here in Vacationland, at least not yet. But I don’t know anyone who thinks the creation of Baxter State Park or Acadia National Park was not a good idea. And as the subtitle to Ken Burns’s documentary puts it, the National Park System is “America’s Best Idea.”

That subtitle comes from writer Wallace Stegner’s observation that the national parks were “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

Ironic, but true. America, a nation founded on exploration, expansion and exploitation, manifests its highest and best self when it conserves and preserves. These days, of course, any initiative that appears to sacrifice personal gain in favor the greater good tends to get labelled socialism, but then the difference between good and evil is often just the difference between short-term and long-term consequences.

I admire Roxanne Quimby for investing so much of her Burt’s Bees fortune to acquire woodlands in Maine’s unorganized territories in hopes of someday having them added to Baxter State Park to help create a Maine Woods National Park. Sure, she gets criticized for her conservation efforts, but then so did Percy Baxter in his day. It’s human nature to be short-sighted. Take the long view.

When I drive through North Conway on my way to see Nora, I see the future of Millinocket, a commercial center clustered at the gateway to a great expanse of preserved wildlands. The argument I most often hear against a Maine Woods National Park is that the state will lose control of its lands, but then I doubt the federal government could have done much worse than the state of Maine in handling the Plum Creek mega-development around Moosehead Lake. That’s what I mean by the difference between good and evil being the difference between short-term and long-term consequences.

Maine has done a good job with patchwork preservation. Now it’s time for wholesale conservation, time to stitch the crazy quilt of protected lands together. The future of the North Maine Woods does not lie in wood chips and toiler paper; it lies in keeping the largest expanse of unbroken woodlands east of the Mississippi intact. One hundred years from now, our descendants will look back and thank us.

(A footnote: For a good history of conservation efforts in New England, I recommend “Twentieth-Century New England Land Conservation,” edited by Charles H.W. Foster, Harvard University Press, 2009. It’s a state-by-state narrative, the Maine chapter written by Thomas Urquhart, former director of Maine Audubon Society.)

Sidebar Elements

The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.