BRUNSWICK — Twenty years ago this month, The Nature Conservancy faced a nerve-wracking decision. That summer, a new breed of real estate investors were buying up huge swaths of northern forest land, leaving Mainers to wonder if our tradition of free public access and long-term stewardship was suddenly at risk.

In northwestern Maine, International Paper had 185,000 acres along the St. John River up for sale. The Nature Conservancy took a leap of faith and intervened in December 1998 to acquire an area nearly as large as Baxter State Park, protecting one of the best wilderness rivers in the eastern United States. As scientists identified the most ecologically sensitive areas for preservation, others helped us learn how to manage a forest that had been shaped by a century of silviculture. And over time we found ways to make conservation, recreation and the economy work together.

The St. John land conserves Maine’s most legendary wilderness canoe experience and ensures habitat for endangered animals like the elusive Canada lynx and common ones like moose. The land is also home to 300-year-old stands of black spruce and a dozen rare dragonfly species, including one entirely new to science. And we’re learning that there are new ways to earn income, like selling forest carbon, as well as traditional ways, like producing maple syrup.

Maine is 89 percent forested, offering millions of acres for hiking, hunting, fishing, skiing and snowmobiling. It’s also home for wildlife, including the largest population of native brook trout in the lower 48 states.

Today, as we stand on the cusp of the new year and a new administration in Augusta, we face new challenges as technology, globalization and shifting consumer demands are bringing change and new opportunities to Maine’s traditional forest economy. While some markets have declined, the forest products sector remains a critical component of Maine’s economy and a key testing ground for new management techniques and new forest products.

At the same time, we are reminded of the assets that Maine’s forests provide us all, and the direct role they play in our rural communities. That is why private landowners across the state not only engage in timber management, but also invest in recreation infrastructure, ranging from snowmobile trails and campsites to canoe access areas and whitewater rafting opportunities.

Forests are good for our souls, whether we’re hiking, hunting, fishing or just dipping our feet in a clear stream. And, despite the downturn in traditional papermaking, forests are still core to the foundation for rural Maine’s economy and community strength. Now is the time to partner with groups like For/Maine, Local Woodworks and Maine Woods Consortium to foster the development of new wood products, enhance tourism, keep forests as forests, identify the necessary policy changes to keep Maine forest products competitive and develop more diverse local economies. Our forests are also key to mitigating climate change and the source of essential clean water.

But we need to act with the same boldness we took 20 years ago. We need to keep working across Maine, with state and federal government, tribal nations, the University of Maine, communities and nonprofit and private landowners, to ensure that we are diversifying Maine’s rural communities. We need to attract capital investments to reimagine traditional mill towns, and once again secure public resources like the federal Forest Legacy program, which keeps forests as forests and the Land for Maine’s Future Program, which helps create economic prosperity for communities through conservation.

Today, as northern Maine again faces uncertain times, the St. John is a hopeful reminder that by working together with state government as an ally, we can still shape a new and brighter future, for people, for our communities and for nature.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.