WELD — Conspicuously absent from current debate over the fate of Maine’s North Woods has been mention of national forest designation for some portion of 10 million acres of unorganized territory. A national forest would achieve the same ends as a national park, and is better suited to northern Maine in a number of ways.

Forests and parks are similar, with one major difference between them: National parks allow no timber harvesting; strict preservation is the rule. National forests allow for sustainable logging activity, managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Both feature federal ownership, and each has a recreational mission that allows for multiple uses within certain bounds. What both manage to secure is the protection of wild land, and the preservation into perpetuity of public access to it.

A long-standing and cherished tradition in Maine, our access to the woods is at present threatened as never before. An unprecedented pattern of anonymous, absentee and mercenary ownership has settled over the North Woods in recent years; none of Maine’s remaining paper companies owns any portion of the forest anymore.

CHANGING FOREST

Seven million acres have changed hands since the late 1980s — the last to divest was Mead in 2005 — and the new owners are aware that there are quicker means to a return on their investment than waiting for trees to grow. Witness Plum Creek’s massive development proposal for the Moosehead Lake region.

Development in the North Woods is the looming threat these days; vacation-home building means fragmentation of the forest, with attendant damage to its ecology, diversity and resiliency. Public access will also be lost. If one accepts the premise that something needs to be done — on a broad scale and soon — to safeguard both the integrity of the forest and the public’s access to it, then the question becomes one of how best to accomplish this.

Conservation easements, though effective in their own right, are inadequate and piecemeal. The state of Maine is in no position to purchase extensive tracts. Federal ownership remains the best way to achieve large-scale and permanent protection of Maine’s forest lands. Those with an aversion to a federal presence in the Maine woods would like even less their own permanent exclusion from it someday.

RESTORE’s protracted campaign for a 3-million-acre Maine Woods National Park stretching from Moosehead to beyond Katahdin has yet to generate enthusiasm among the people who live in the northern counties. It has succeeded only in alienating those it needs to win over, through an implicit and explicit denigration of North Woods culture — of traditional modes of vocation and of recreation. National park promotional rhetoric has been rife with elitist assumptions and insinuations, chief among them that logging is somehow morally wrong.

It is not oversimplification to observe that it is precisely this aspect of the national park campaign — waged by outsiders, for the most part — that has engendered widespread resentment rather than receptivity, and it is precisely because national forests allow logging that any mention of this option has been scrupulously avoided by mainstream environmental organizations.

It seems appropriate and just that the people who live within and adjacent to the region in question might see a federal designation that would represent a respect for their traditions, rather than a contempt for them.

The rationale for a national forest goes well beyond this consideration of social justice and regional identity, however. Silviculture — the science of carefully considered manipulation of the successional stages of a forest — can enhance the entire ecosystem and render it both more resilient and more diverse. (A forest is not necessarily better off left alone; the wildfires in Yellowstone after 100 years without tree harvesting come to mind.)

NEARBY EXAMPLE

The nearby White Mountain National Forest is a widely popular destination for millions of outdoor enthusiasts and an economic boon to the region that invigorates traditional economic sectors as well as those of modern ecotourism.

Thirty-five percent of its 800,000 acres is open to logging; extensive environmental review and public comment precede any instance of timber harvest.

Maintaining a carefully managed balance between strict preservation and multiple, responsible use, the White Mountain National Forest works quite well.

A national forest represents a good compromise — certainly not in any sense of abandoning principle, but in the democratic sense of how Americans accomplish things: by meeting on common ground. While we argue self-righteously, Wall Street does not sleep. There is no time to waste.

Special to the Telegram