Conservation Issues

With all the country’s attention stuck on the big issues in Washington, it’s easy to miss out on the little things that, arguably, make a much bigger impact on our day-to-day lives. I’ve been trying to keep up with Maine’s local public lands issues and get as politically involved as my short supply of patience allows. That’s led to some new experiences on my part, like a trip to Augusta last week to testify in support of a bill involving Maine’s public lands.

An almost identical bill was introduced to the legislature last year, passed unanimously in the House and the Senate, was vetoed by the governor, and then failed to get the supermajority necessary to override that veto. So the crafters of the bill made some minor changes to address the reasons the governor claimed he had vetoed the original, and are reintroducing the bill this year. Since our governor has the dubious distinction of having vetoed more bills than any other governor in the state’s history, and is known for his hostile attitude toward public lands, my guess is that the new bill will also be vetoed after passing, and so far it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the veto can be overridden.

Tunk Mountain, in the Donnell Pond Public Reserved Land.

The details of the bill are fairly modest, and are probably quite unsexy for anyone who doesn’t have an interest in Maine’s public lands, logging industry, and outdoor recreation. The background is that Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands is funded mainly by leases and sales of timber cut on Public Reserved Lands. PRL’s are managed for multiple uses, including logging/forestry, recreation, hunting, and conservation. (Readers of this blog may recognize a few of the Public Reserved Lands, such as the Bigelow Range, Cutler Coast, Tumbledown, and Donnell Pond.) Maine’s Constitution mandates that the money from the PRL’s can only be used for improvements to public lands, and education (and apparently for building churches? So I heard during the public testimony). Over the past few years, the governor has attempted to use the money in the public lands fund for non-related purposes, until Maine’s Attorney General made it clear that that wasn’t going to happen.

By last year, the public lands fund had a pile of cash (around $8 million) that had been building over the years, and the bill aims to use some of that in order to improve educational programs to train future loggers (by providing money to lease logging equipment and training tools), and to conduct a study to decide which parts of the public lands could use better recreational infrastructure (trailheads, signage, etc.). Pretty boring, and seemingly uncontroversial, right?

I guess it’s a sign of the times, but our governor often lets his hot temper make his decisions regarding policy (like last year, when he vowed to veto every single bill that came before him, just because he was pissed off). I’ve written about his distaste for public lands before. As I learned while listening to two also uncontroversial bills that came to the committee before the one I testified for, the governor’s office and appointees opposed every bill that came before the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry this year. It’s hard for me to listen to the administration argue that spending five million dollars to help local food banks feed needy families is too expensive even though the governor has been building the state’s rainy-day fund to over a billion dollars by refusing to spend money at every turn, but that’s where we are as a state and a country.

There are plenty of signs that the governor is going to scuttle this bill as best he can already, including the recent news that the Bureau of Parks and Lands (which is led by someone that the governor improperly appointed to the position) has been spending that money as fast as it can on unknown projects. And the governor will likely not suffer any political consequences from this because it’s not a big, hot issue that will get lots of people all worked up. It’s just something uncontroversial that will help a good number of people while hindering no one.

Sunrise from a campsite at the Cutler Coast.

This was my first time doing anything like this, and I found the experience to be pretty interesting and enlightening. Because of the two bills being debated before the one I had arrived for, I learned more about food banks and rabbit farming than I was planning, and, of course, about the legal process. It was time consuming, but if you’re lucky enough to have the time to spare, I’d highly recommend getting more involved in your local politics like this. Also, especially if you have hair on your head and it’s not grey, apparently legislators love hearing from you even more (not that I value young opinions any more than old, I’m just telling you what I heard).

I wouldn’t have known to come to the hearing on my own— I have the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club of Maine to thank for that. Whether you’re a member of a local environmental advocacy group or not, get on their emailing lists, talk to them about what you can do to help in the legislative process, and get yourself to the state capital once in a while. Who knows, you might find it as surprisingly interesting as I did.

Last year, I adopted a section of trail with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club to become a volunteer trail maintainer. Since then, I’ve been to my trail three times to clear fallen trees, trim brush, clean water bars, and clean trash from campsites. These are all things that I could have done on my own without officially becoming a volunteer maintainer, but making it official is the best way to keep an immense trail like the Appalachian Trail in good shape. Here’s why.

TrailMaintenance

My section of trail is about 8 miles long, and each of my trips to maintain it has taken 1 to 3 days. When I’ve finished my work trip, I send a work report to the district overseer– the sections of trail that MATC maintains are broken into districts throughout the state, each with an overseer. Each overseer coordinates a handful of volunteers who do trail maintenance on a given section of trail. If no volunteer is responsible for a section of trail, as was the case before I volunteered, the overseer either takes it upon himself to do the trail maintenance, or tries to find more volunteers.

So when I took over my section of trail, that freed up the district overseer from having to make extra trips to my section, and he can now focus on making sure other sections are maintained properly. Even better, if I or another maintainer run into something we can’t fix with the tools we have, as was the case for many maintainers after 2015’s harsh New England winter, he can coordinate groups of volunteers to tackle the problems together.

You’ll notice I’m talking about volunteers, not paid trail crews. The fact of the Appalachian Trail is that the vast majority of trail maintenance is done by unpaid volunteers. Paid trail crews usually take on major work that requires technical skills, like building stone stairways, relocating large sections of trail, or building shelters (although volunteers often do much of the heavy work for those, too). The most common stuff that you might complain about while hiking through an overgrown or muddy section of trail– that’s volunteer work.

Volunteering comes with an obligation to visit your section of trail two, three, or four times a year in order to maintain it, and that’s also important. While tossing fallen branches off a trail that you’re hiking on is helpful, one can’t rely on casual hikers to stop and clear all the blow downs. It’s important to have one or more people who are responsible for a trail, who commit to those multiple trips each year.

I often hear through-hikers or people who appreciate them asking how they can “give back to the trail”, but few responses ever focus on what is absolutely one of the most important things you can do to help hikers. Volunteer to maintain a trail. If you can commit to three trips to the trail each year (which I know isn’t something everyone can do– that’s the reason I only started last year), look into volunteering. It’s not just something to do on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail– National Forests and National Parks often rely on volunteer trail maintainers also. Here are a few big ones:

Appalachian Trail (get in touch with your local chapter)
Pacific Crest Trail
Appalachian Mountain Club (NH, NJ, ME)
For National Parks, find the “Friends of…” website for the park (many National Parks have official Friends organizations that help raise funds and maintain trails)

From Pleasant Pond Mountain, looking toward Big Moose Mountain (a Public Reserved Land unit).

From Pleasant Pond Mountain, looking toward Big Moose Mountain.

One of the strongest memories from my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail came at the top of Pleasant Pond Mountain, a low, rocky peak just east of the Kennebec River in Maine. One of my hiking partners pointed out at the miles and miles of uninterrupted forest and lakes ahead of us, and said in awe, “I can’t think of place back home where you can stand on a mountain and see a valley without farms and houses. There’s nothing man-made down there.” That off-hand comment made me very proud to call this state home, even though I could see a few small signs of humanity nestled among the trees. He was right, though– it’s not a common thing to be able to look out on such a vast wilderness in the eastern United States.

Pretty soon, though, that view may not be so wild anymore. A large wind farm has been proposed just south of Pleasant Pond Mountain in Bingham, which would be plainly visible from mountains as far away as the Bigelow Range and Moxie Bald. Both the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, and Appalachian Mountain Club opposed another nearby wind farm (Highland) in 2011 because of its impact on the views from the Trail, but so far they haven’t officially opposed this particular project.

Why would they oppose wind farms, you may ask? Isn’t clean, renewable energy something these groups would support? Sure. And they do, but not blindly. For all the benefits of wind energy, there are plenty of downsides– you’ve probably heard of some, like the impacts on bats and birds, or the tax credit incentives for building them, or the noise issues of turbines near homes. The issue that the MATC, AMC, and ATC focus on is the impact of the view from the AT.

The view from the Appalachian Trail, or from many of our other mountains, is easy to take for granted when weighing the benefits of clean energy. But even if you don’t think 450-foot tall wind turbines are an eyesore in the middle of the deep woods, there’s no arguing against the fact that they stand out, and that they aren’t a natural sight. A view of a wind farm, despite the marketing claims, is an industrial view, not a pastoral and natural one.

Walking beneath a set of turbines in the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm

Walking beneath a set of turbines in the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm on the Pacific Crest Trail, most certainly not a view of natural wilderness.

Some people will argue that all wind farm development should be stopped, and others will argue that we should forge ahead with as many wind farms as possible right away, but neither extreme is an intelligent course of action. This issue is about balancing one need with other needs. There are plenty of places to site wind farms where there is less visual impact from the state’s most scenic vistas, and plenty of other options for clean, renewable energy in the state.

Here are some nifty links that show Maine already generates more wind power than the rest of New England combined, and Maine’s energy production is more than 50% renewable even without wind. It’s also worth looking at the Wikipedia overview of wind power in Maine to see what else is going on. As elsewhere, politics and money play a bigger role in building wind farms than any environmental concerns. In one recent high-profile case, a massive offshore wind farm project was cancelled due to boneheaded politics, though it could have tripled the state’s wind energy production– instead, we continue to see projects with relatively small production potential and high visual impact because they’re cheap to build and easier to push through the political machine.

I sometimes wonder what my hiking companion would have said had he looked out from Pleasant Pond Mountain to see an array of alien structures in the valley, with roads and construction filling the spaces between. Certainly not that he was impressed by the lack of humanity and development in the surrounding landscape. I’d rather visitors to my state fall in love with its forests and mountains as I have, than to see it as just another industrial landscape.

As I’ve worked with maps of the Appalachian Trail for the past several years, I’ve been fascinated by seeing what the land around the AT looks like from satellite imagery. It’s often very different from what we, as hikers, realize is nearby. What you see from above tells a very different story about the landscape than what thousands of through-hikers have seen.

Logging
The mountains and forests surrounding the Appalachian Trail have traditionally been very busy with logging and timber cutting, although today the amount of logging is certainly less than it was a hundred years ago. Maine and New Hampshire, especially, were cut with wild abandon. Today, the aerial view of the AT shows that there is still plenty of logging in Maine, but not much near the trail in New Hampshire or anywhere else that I could find.

Land ownership is an important consideration in timber cutting near the AT– in Maine, the trail mostly follows a narrow strip of National Park Service land sandwiched between private land owned by logging companies. Further south, the AT mostly walks through National Parks (where logging is not allowed) or National Forests (where logging is regulated by the Forest Service). What surprised me so much about the aerial view of logging lands in Maine is how invisible they are from the Trail, despite being sometimes only a quarter mile through the woods.

A logging area, mostly regrown, near the north end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Notice how close to the AT this cut comes, though you'd never notice it from the trail.

A logging area, mostly regrown, near the north end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Notice how close this cut comes to the AT, though you’d rarely notice it from the trail.

Lots of logging near Pleasant Pond Mountain in Maine. Notice how the strip of uncut land around the Trail shows where the National Park Service land border abuts the private logging company's land.

Lots of logging near Pleasant Pond Mountain in Maine. Notice how the strip of uncut land around the Trail shows where the National Park Service land border abuts the private logging company’s land.

A recent, large cut very close to the AT in one of the wildest parts of Maine. Again, you'd never notice this from the Trail.

A recent, large cut very close to the AT in one of the wildest parts of Maine. Again, you’d never notice this from the Trail.

The cut on the left is within Grafton Notch State Park, which probably means the logging was regulated by the state's Bureau of Parks and Lands.

The cut on the left is within Grafton Notch State Park, which probably means the logging was regulated by the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Farms
The other major business in the mountains and rural areas is farming. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the trail walks along long mountain ridges, and occasionally dips into valleys that are filled with farmland. Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts are also patchworks of farmland although nowhere near as completely as those two large, flat, rural states. I find the farmland to be very pleasing to walk through, almost as much as a deep forest. There’s just as much peace to be found in a pasture, unless you happen to be nervous around bulls.

A patchwork of farmland on the New York/New Jersey border.

A patchwork of farmland on the New York/New Jersey border.

Farmland in the valleys between mountain ridges in Virginia.

Farmland in the valleys between mountain ridges in Virginia.

A more exaggerated example of farms filling the Virginia valleys while the mountain ridges remain mostly untouched.

A more exaggerated example of farms filling the Virginia valleys while the mountain ridges remain mostly untouched.

Ski Resorts
The Appalachian Trail crosses over, or within a short distance of, more than a dozen ski resorts. From the sky, one can see just how much of an impact this use of land can have. In some cases, the clearcut ski trails make for a good view where there may not have been one on top of a mountain otherwise. Hikers also tend to enjoy the ski resorts because there may be buildings where we can camp on top of a mountain, or restaurants and stores near the trail. A less flattering look at these resorts is that they become essentially permanent marks on the landscape, and often go along with major housing and condo developments. Like logging, I see them as an important economic driver in rural mountain areas which can have negative impacts if not regulated and held in check to some extent.

Sugarloaf in Maine, one of the largest resorts in the state.

Sugarloaf in Maine, one of the largest resorts in the state.

Killington and Pico in Vermont, the busiest ski resort in New England. Notice the extensive housing developments packed into the area around the resort as well as the ski trails.

Killington and Pico in Vermont, the busiest ski resort in New England. Notice the extensive housing developments packed into the area around the resort as well as the ski trails.

Housing Developments
I expected to find suburban developments in droves in the far northern section of Virginia, where the AT passes very close to Washington, DC, and was not wrong. But there are many large developments very close to the trail in other places, as well. It’s hard to miss these when looking at aerial images. Messes of yards and roads in deep woods very near to the AT stand out like a sore thumb. In one case, where a planned development was cancelled and later turned into a National Recreation Area, you can still see the abandoned roads even decades later– a near-permanent mark upon the land.

In New Jersey and New York, the AT is very close to New York City, so suburban developments are abundant, crowding near to the Trail.

In New Jersey and New York, the AT is very close to New York City, so suburban developments are abundant, crowding near to the Trail.

In Northern Virginia, the AT threads the needle between many suburban developments. Like the New York area, this area is home to many commuters in the Washington, DC, area.

In Northern Virginia, the AT threads the needle between many suburban developments. Like the New York area, this area is home to many commuters in the Washington, DC, area.

In the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, one can still see the roads that were built for a real estate development and abandoned.

In the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, one can still see the roads that were built for a real estate development and abandoned (northwest of the AT, faint lines in the woods).

Even the high mountains aren't immune to vacation homes and real estate development.

Even the high mountains aren’t immune to vacation homes and real estate development.

Roads
I was surprised to see that Interstate 90 passed by less than half a mile from Upper Goose Pond Cabin, one of the quietest, most peaceful shelters on the AT. Roads are an interesting feature on the landscape, with thousands of miles of them winding all over the country and criss-crossing the Appalachian Trail. In some places I was surprised to see so few roads, though the Trail seems to cross them so often. In other areas, zooming in a little closer showed that there were many more small roads that weren’t visible from further out.

Upper Goose Pond, so idyllic and tranquil, isn't really so far from a major Interstate highway!

Upper Goose Pond, so idyllic and tranquil, isn’t really so far from a major Interstate highway!

In many National Forests, it looks like the closest road to the Trail is miles away.

In many National Forests, it looks like the closest road to the Trail is miles away.

But zoom in much further, and you'll find that there is a tangle of small Forest Service roads all around the Trail.

But zoom in much further, and you’ll find that there is a tangle of small Forest Service roads all around the Trail.

Wilderness
To find total wilderness near the trail, I had to look for areas with strongly protected public land. Shenandoah and Smokey Mountains National Parks had the largest uninterrupted road-free areas I could find. Baxter State Park was the only land I could find that wasn’t owned by the Federal government and did have deep wilderness. The National Forests along the Trail were hit and miss– many National Forests are filled with roads and logging, but some have heavily protected by Wilderness areas. After looking along the entire AT for visible human impacts, the truly wild areas seem scarcer and more important than ever.

Shenandoah National Park seems like such a car-oriented place, but there is a remarkable amount of wilderness once you drop off the ridgeline where the AT parallels Skyline Drive.

Shenandoah National Park seems like such a car-oriented place, but there is a remarkable amount of wilderness once you drop off the ridgeline where the AT parallels Skyline Drive.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, as well, seems busy and car-oriented, but the area near it is also remarkably wild.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, as well, seems busy and car-oriented, but the area near it is also remarkably wild.

The Smokey Mountains, so crowded by car-bound visitors and hikers, is also remarkable for the sheer acreage of its wilderness.

The Smokey Mountains, so crowded by hikers and car-bound visitors, is also remarkable for the sheer acreage of its wilderness.

Baxter State Park was the only massive wilderness I found near the AT not owned by the Federal Government, which says to me that the National Park and Forest Services, as well as BSP are especially important parts of our land management near the AT.

Baxter State Park was the only massive wilderness I found near the AT not owned by the Federal Government, which says to me that the National Park and Forest Services, as well as BSP are especially important parts of our land management near the AT.

As a backpacking instructor for NOLS, one of the lessons I try to impart on students is that we can’t take for granted the beautiful mountains and forests we play in. When I was first a student on a NOLS course, I spent three months in various wild areas, assuming that these remote mountains and canyons had forever been used only for hiking, paddling, backpacking, or other wilderness ventures. But with each area we entered, there were new cognitive dissonances. Paddling by oil derricks on the Green River, or hearing warnings of an angry, shotgun-toting neighbor next to a Forest Service trailhead in the Wind River Mountains. These things didn’t fit with the wilderness I thought I was in.

Since then, I’ve learned more about the trails that I hike on, and the land I recreate in. Most hikers still take for granted that the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail exist, meandering through scenic mountains for thousands of miles. They don’t give too much thought to who owns the land under them while they’re standing on a mountain or paddling a river. But who owns the land, and how it’s managed, and how it came to be like that, are issues that matter very much if we plan to continue visiting the mountains.

Maine's public lands managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Click here for the original.

Maine’s public lands managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Click here for the original.

These issues pop up mostly on the local level– they don’t get national attention when headlines are more concerned with high-profile political squabbling. I’ve been watching a few of these debates play out in Maine over the past year, mirroring debates from national lands in the west. You might not hear about these if you live outside the state, but I can almost guarantee something similar is going on near your home.

Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) is a well-regarded agency that oversees Maine’s State Parks and Public Reserved Lands. The Public Reserved Lands are analogous to National Forests, with the land being managed for wildlife habitat, recreation, and sustainable timber harvesting. BPL uses income from the timber harvest to pay its overhead, and most everyone is happy with the arrangement. Locals and tourists get beautiful mountains and lakes to visit, and management costs come out of sustainable logging, which doesn’t significantly impact the recreation or wildlife habitat. It’s a harmonious balance between the three primary goals of the Bureau.

Heading up Parker Ridge, with a view of Tumbledown Pond and Mountain.

Tumbledown Pond and Mountain, one of the most loved Public Reserved Lands.

But as with all balances between recreation and resource extraction, politics rears its ugly head. In the past several years our governor has tried to tip the balance in public lands more toward logging, which has led to increased harvests despite sustainable logging limits set by BPL. A few weeks ago came his latest attempt (as reported in Bangor and Portland), which involves dissolving BPL, and moving management of the Public Reserved Lands to the Maine Forest Service– an agency that is primarily concerned with logging on private lands, not recreation on public lands. Practically everyone sees this as a veiled attempt to cut more trees for short-term economic gain.

Looking over Flagstaff Lake from the Bigelow Range (possibly my favorite Public Reserved Land)

Looking over Flagstaff Lake from the Bigelow Range (possibly my favorite Public Reserved Land)

The reaction to the governor’s plan hasn’t been particularly positive (editorials in the Bangor Daily and Free Press, testimony by Natural Resources Council of Maine, and some backlash in Augusta), but the fight continues. There’s a lot of quick money in resource extraction and real estate development, while the economic benefit of recreation on public land is a bit harder to measure, so short-sighted politicians often see public land as a pile of cash being squandered by whiny environmentalists.

The Appalachian Trail touches five Public Reserved Lands (Mahoosuc, Four Ponds, Bigelow, Abraham, and Nahmakanta), which means over a thousand through-hikers each year visit these lands, not to mention various section hikers. More importantly, there are millions of tourists who come to Maine each year, most of whom spend at least some of their time enjoying the great outdoors. Whenever I meet someone from away, I hope they come to love the land as much as I do, and even come back again and again because of it. It’s harder to imagine that person seeing Maine as such a special place if the balance between conservation and resource extraction tips too far away from conservation.

Edit: I’ll post some articles about how the issue progresses as they come in.
3/23/15: A well-balanced article from the Portland Press Herald that highlights the history of BPL, the varied opposition to the plan, the governor’s plan for where the increased revenue would go, and his strong-arming tactics for getting a widely unpopular plan into effect.
4/4/15: Maine Legislature’s Agriculture Committee almost unanimously rejected the proposal in a bipartisan vote (the full legislature still has to vote on the proposal, but this is a good indication of where the proposal belongs). According to the committee chair, “We didn’t get any emails, calls, letters from anyone in the state who supported it… Every correspondence we received was opposed to it.”
4/16/15: The legislative committee gave a resounding and nearly unanimous NO to LePage’s proposal, and even added some extra rules to make his plans less likely to succeed.