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Delicate Terrain

Seeing vast portions of Maine wilderness threatened by development, the Appalachian Mountain Club has become a landowner itself to preserve what it can. But being a good neighbor isn't always easy.

Four hours north of Boston, I veer off Interstate 95 and onto the backcountry routes of Maine. After another hour, past a sign that reads "Hunt Bear With Dick," I make it to the recreational hub of Greenville, on the southern shores of Moosehead Lake. I grab a copy of the Moosehead Messenger and a cup of horrendous coffee, then head out on the last bit of road, a 45-minute stretch on rutted dirt best suited for the Plum Creek Timber Co.'s trucks that barrel down these lanes.

I arrive at my destination, Little Lyford Pond Camps, a bit ragged, but my mood perks up when I spot hummingbirds on the front porch of the main lodge. A woman sitting in a rocking chair and wearing a colorful skirt and hiking boots gives me one of those "life is bliss" smiles that, back in the city, I might equate with swallowing happy pills. But then I take in her view - half a dozen cottages nestled in a velvety green grove, surrounded by the tall pines and birches of the northern forest. A two-minute walk brings me to First Little Lyford Pond, a tranquil gem shadowed by the tall ridges of Baker and Indian mountains, and now that woman's smile makes perfect sense.

Opened in 1873 as a timber camp for those tough-as-bark men who chopped down trees and then rode atop those logs on rapidly churning rivers to the paper mill, Little Lyford made the transition to a sporting camp in the early 1900s. So-called Sports would take the long train ride from Boston and New York to hunt deer and to fish for native brook trout along the waters of the West Branch of the Pleasant River. In the past two decades, however, many of these rustic retreats, nestled deep in the woods across much of northern New England, have vanished because of declining business. With the increasing popularity of the Web and video games, younger generations are forsaking the outdoors for the indoors. The number of visitors to the nucleus of the Maine Woods, Baxter State Park, has declined from 75,000 in 2000 to a little over 55,000 last year.

This lull in enthusiasm for the outdoors might be just what it takes to pave the way (and, yes, pave is the apt word) for Plum Creek to develop land that, for generations, was used primarily for forestry. Outside the window of that new trophy house would be one of the largest swaths of forest in America, more than 10 million acres that have rarely been touched by anything but timber trucks. The backwoods of northern Maine are dotted with secluded lakes, rivers, and swimming holes; it's a remote paradise that only the hardiest adventurers or loggers have ever bothered to trek. Now it looks as if they have company. And Maine may never be the same.

In 2003, Bob LeRoy, owner of Little Lyford for seven years, was becoming increasingly alarmed about this new breed of timber company he was seeing enter the North Country. The Plum Creek Timber Co. had begun subdividing some of its vast properties into smaller lots and selling them to private developers. LeRoy knew he couldn't stop Plum Creek from developing its own land, but, facing increasing financial pressure, he was afraid Little Lyford would soon meet the same fate. "I was determined to protect this landscape and keep it open to traditional uses," he says.

LeRoy needed a new owner for Little Lyford, an owner who wouldn't hinder the local multimillion-dollar logging industry but who also had muscle, money, and an army of supporters as dedicated as he was to making sure that picturesque parts of northern New England were not going to be sold off and turned into developments of condos and new homes.

"I think," LeRoy says, "I found a perfect match in AMC."

ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY YEARS AGO, 39 outdoor enthusiasts met in Boston and formed a nonprofit organization devoted to the exploration of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Several members had visited Europe and, impressed by the Alpine huts that sheltered hikers, were determined to bring this type of lodging to the United States for the growing ranks of hardy "trampers," as hikers were called. A dozen years later, in 1888, their ambitions were realized with the opening of the stone Madison Spring hut, set between the 5,000-foot peaks of Mount Madison and Mount Adams in the Presidential Range. A night at the cabin cost 50 cents, and since the backpack had yet to be invented, hikers carried their food and clothing in a blanket tied and slung from shoulder to hip. Three more huts, also furnished with stoves, were built later to accommodate the steady stream of climbers.

Yet it wasn't until 1922, when a young iconoclast named Joe Dodge was hired as Pinkham Notch hutmaster, that the Appalachian Mountain Club, as we know it today, began to take shape. By the time Dodge retired in 1959, seven backcountry huts dotted a stretch of land over the course of 50 miles, each cabin a day's hike away from the next. When Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas sang the praises of the region in a 35-page spread in National Geographic in 1961, the AMC's popularity soared, and an eighth and final hut, Mizpah Spring, was built to deal with the increase in hikers.

The huts remain the AMC's core business to this day. Hut crews cook dinners of fettuccine Alfredo, salads, and freshly baked bread, provide fluids to those naive day hikers who thought they had brought enough water, and take people on nature walks.

That last component, education, was the most important aspect to the AMC's Chris Thayer, 35, when he was hutmaster of the Lakes of the Clouds and Greenleaf cabins. "Sure, we service the needs of hungry hikers, provide food and lodging," he says, "but hopefully open their eyes to the natural world and our place in it."

There will always be those backpackers who scoff at the hut system, preferring a tent in solitude to a cozy night at what they decry as "Lakes in the Crowds." And their criticism might ring true in the Green Mountains of Vermont, whose trail system is much less demanding. But in the White Mountains, steep passes called notches punctuate walls of granite, gorges plummet to the forest floor, and rocky summits drop off in steep cliffs. Each one of those fabulous ridge walks, where you feel on top of the world, is at the end of an unrelenting climb. And then there is the weather, which can go from good to bad to treacherous in less than an hour.

"The White Mountain section and the Mahoosucs, as you enter Maine, are the most rugged section of the AT," says Kevin "Hawk" Metheny, an AMC employee who traversed the entire 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail in 1993. "It's the first time the northbound hiker is introduced to the really steep, serious climbs."

IF EVER THERE WAS AN OBVIOUS partnership to be formed, it is outdoor recreation with environmental advocacy. That's why it's no surprise that the AMC was instrumental in the 1911 Weeks Act, which helped create the White Mountain National Forest. Yet it really wasn't until the 1990s that the AMC evolved from being merely a passive custodian of some quaint huts in the mountains into an aggressive environmental-rights powerhouse, not unlike the Sierra Club. It did not happen by accident. It was a matter of survival.

With membership stagnant at around 30,000 in 1990, the AMC decided it needed a new strategy to grow. It formed the Northern Forest Alliance with dozens of other conservation groups to deal with newcomers like Plum Creek that were starting to buy centuries-old regional timber companies. The club also helped to protect Sterling Forest near New York City and renegotiated the Deerfield River agreement with New England Power (the river's hydropower dam operator), conservationists, and boaters, which led to renewed interest in boating and rafting on this central Massachusetts river. Taking aggressive stances worked - membership in the AMC shot up to 90,000 by the end of the decade - but there were growing pains. In the midst of trying to mediate another dam relicensing proposal at a paper mill in Berlin, New Hampshire, the AMC abruptly abandoned the project in 1994 when opposition from locals, who didn't want outsiders meddling in their affairs, became too intense. James River Paper Co., the leading employer in town and owner of that mill, was in the middle of laying off workers and seemed only too pleased to let community resentment about impending economic woes (the plant and mill are now closed) transfer to the AMC. Damage control for the AMC proved costly. A small group of vocal critics in Berlin used the mill incident to ramp up criticism and, in 1995, managed to force a full-scale review by the White Mountain National Forest of the AMC's normally routine renewal of its 30-year hut permit, dragging out the process for four years.

"In hindsight, we didn't spend enough time working with local leaders," says AMC executive director Andy Falender in the group's headquarters on Beacon Hill. "We certainly didn't spend enough time working with the broad-based citizenry of Berlin. With these type of conservation efforts, you have to set the stage, listen, and work with all groups."

It was a lesson the AMC would remember well as it moved to purchase from LeRoy the 300-acre Little Lyford property near Moosehead Lake in 2003. The decision to save a wilderness relic signaled another shift in direction for the AMC and marked the organization's first step in a critical new venture.

THE LITTLE LYFORD SALE was completed in the summer of 2003. That December, with the help of Maine Governor John Baldacci and the Maine Department of Conservation, the AMC spent $14.2 million to buy more property surrounding Little Lyford: 37,000 acres from the International Paper Co. - a swath of land about 44 times the size of Manhattan's Central Park. The AMC is calling the purchase the Maine Woods Initiative. "It's absolutely the biggest thing we've ever taken on," Falender says.

The hefty chunk of land makes Little Lyford the cornerstone of a property that includes two ponds, the West Branch of the Pleasant River, and a trail to Gulf Hagas, the spectacular gorge that Mainers call "the Grand Canyon of the East." The land envelops a northern section of the Appalachian Trail, known as the 100-Mile Wilderness. "It's an area that not only is a treasure trove of ecological wonders," says Falender, "but has so many major recreational opportunities that are of interest to our members."

In addition to creating a 10,000-acre nature preserve on the property, the club began offering hiking, canoeing, fishing, birding, and cross-country skiing. It's an idyllic setting for members and nonmembers alike. But then there were those pesky local critics, who had already chased away the Massachusetts group RESTORE: The North Woods, which wanted to create a 3.2 million-acre national park around Maine's Appalachian Trail corridor. They also had ridiculed Roxanne Quimby, cofounder of Burt's Bees Products, who for years dreamed of creating a 40,000-acre preserve on the outskirts of Baxter State Park.

Many locals opposed the AMC's purchases out of fear that logging, hunting, and snowmobiling would be prohibited on that property. "The number one issue in northern Maine is land use, land access. That's pretty much what everything is about up here," explains Bob Hamer, executive director of the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce. "Mainers have come to expect that all this land around them will be available for their traditional uses."

In this sticky situation, the AMC did the only things possible to preserve its relationship with its new neighbors: It began logging on a section of the property; offered hunting, trapping, and fishing on the land; and, after closing several snowmobiling trails, surrendered to locals a 6.5-mile stretch of a snowmobiling road that's often used in wintertime to travel between the towns of Greenville and Brownville.

Gerry Whiting, head of the Maine Woods Initiative, says this is nothing new for the AMC. "We've had this historic relationship with the White Mountain National Forest, where there's hunting, logging, and snowmobiling." That's true. But this time there's one significant difference: The AMC now owns the property.

Falender is particularly excited about the logging, because the profits can help offset the cost of the land. "We get to finally lead by example," he says, "showing visitors that sustainable harvesting can be done right."

Some snowmobilers still aren't satisfied, in part because one of the trails that remains closed connects Brownville to the northern town of Kokadjo. Fred Candeloro, a graduate of Quincy (Massachusetts) Vocational High School, owns the Kokadjo Trading Post, a general store that sells pizza, a large collection of flies for fishermen to use on First Roach Pond (right behind the store), and even bumper stickers that read: "RESTORE: Boston, Leave Our Maine Way of Life Alone."

Judging from all the people who shake his hand and pat him on the back as they enter his adjoining restaurant, Candeloro is a popular and friendly figure in these parts. But when the subject turns to the Appalachian Mountain Club and its new holdings, Candeloro thrusts his knife into the shrimp he's deveining. "They've already shut down most of the snowmobile trails, and the only reason they didn't shut down the [Brownville-Greenville corridor] is that they use it to get in and out," he fumes. Candeloro is also worried about the recent announcement that the AMC has just bought a second sporting camp, Medawisla, near Little Lyford.

But overall, the AMC has eased the concerns of many locals. "As a whole, most people in the area are supportive," says Greenville's town manager, John Simko.

Falender seems unfazed by the remaining critics and even lights up at the possibilities that new sporting camps would bring to the members of AMC. "Before too much time, we might be able to buy the current structure on Long Pond and expand to the West Branch Camps. Even as soon as this winter," he says, referring to two other sporting camps in need of new owners. This would create a trail system of close to 25 miles that one could backpack in summer, coupled with a 3- to 4-mile paddle on several pristine lakes, and a realm of cross-country skiing or dog-sledding options in the winter. If it all sounds vaguely familiar, that's because a system of sporting camps could become the AMC's Maine version of its White Mountain hut-to-hut system.

THE DISTINCT HIGH-PITCHED CALL OF a loon echoes across the western shores of Brassua Lake, one of numerous bodies of water that surround Moosehead Lake. The loon has always been a barometer for a true wilderness experience in the Northeast. Hear that yodel, and there's sure to be more wildlife nearby. "Oh, I've seen bear, moose, foxes, beaver, bald eagles, loons, herons, all here," says John Willard as we paddle through an estuary to a rushing stream that makes a dynamic entrance into Brassua. Today, except for a family of four loons and the occasional heron, we are alone, listening to the rhythm of our stroke and a westerly wind that whistles through the pines.

"I'm just wondering what's going to happen when the first 25 lots are built on these shores and each one of those houses has a jet ski," says Willard.

He's referring to Plum Creek Timber Co.'s plan to develop 975 lots and two resorts on the shoreline of Moosehead, Brassua, and neighboring ponds. As the owner of the Birches Resort, a group of cottages nestled on the shores of Moosehead Lake in nearby Rockwood, Willard has been in the area since 1969, when his dad purchased the property. He's now the president of a group working against Plum Creek's plan. After our canoeing jaunt ends, Willard flies me on a floatplane over some of the undeveloped areas Plum Creek intends to develop. They include the legendary Northwest Carry, where Henry David Thoreau paddled on his way up to Mount Katahdin in 1857. It is now part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a long-distance paddling route that starts in Old Forge, New York, and ends on the Allagash River. "They want to build 35 lots there," says Willard, pointing to woods and small bogs, where I spot a moose dipping his big head in the water.

Plum Creek is now the largest private landowner in the nation. Having purchased its holdings at a logging rate of roughly $200 per acre in 1998, its owners have decided it's time to make a nifty profit on real estate. They submitted a revised plan to the state's Land Use Regulation Committee this year in response to public comment. Development is a vital component of every rural community, especially in nearby Greenville, which needs the increased tax base to fund its schools and hospital. But it's a plan that seems certain to draw continued criticism, mainly because of the almost shotgun-style method of creating lots around the entirety of Moosehead Lake. The land-use panel will decide on Plum Creek's plan next year.

After sailing upstate New York's ultra-commercial Lake George most of my life, I would be a hypocrite to say that more boats would hurt the 40-mile-long Moosehead Lake. Even in the height of summer, I've never felt there were too many boats on Lake George, probably because I was too busy staring at the glorious view of the Adirondack Mountains on the eastern shores, which, thankfully, have not been developed.

But despite Plum Creek's claims, the company isn't likely to keep its developments close to paved roads, so that remote sections of Moosehead and Brassua and all those small ponds could be left to the moose, bear, and wildlife that call that part of the Maine forest home. Jim Lehner, general manager of Plum Creek in Maine, downplays the number of lots and notes that 99 percent of the 400,000-acre design will be maintained as conservation land. "The actual footprint of development is the remaining 4,000 acres," says Lehner. Time will tell whether Bostonians - who already have large lakes like Winnipesaukee, Champlain, George, and the Rangeley Lakes all within shorter drives than Moosehead - are willing to buy that far north. But what is clear is that the AMC is in this region, and its land is not for sale.

"If International Paper didn't sell to the AMC, it probably would have been broken up into three or four chunks, to people who would want to develop house lots, shore lots," Whiting says. Adds Falender: "As we see what's happening with Plum Creek, how fast the situation is changing, we need to be aggressive. We need to reach high. The failure is not trying to do enough."

The AMC's land purchases in Maine have already led to an increase in nonmotorized recreational use, an important aspect of the tourism package the town of Greenville is trying to develop. With additional money flowing to local restaurants and hotels - especially last winter, when snowfall was often too lean to support snowmobiles - many residents seem to be backing the AMC. They are also teaching schoolchildren the joy of winter sports.

"We had 300 local kids come up to Little Lyford last winter," Falender says. "Only five had ever skied or snowshoed. Almost all had been on a snowmobile."

Meet the new Maine. Same as Thoreau's Maine. On the AMC's turf, anyway.

Stephen Jermanok has authored or contributed to 11 books on the New England outdoors. E-mail him at farandaway@comcast.net.

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