Portland writer and conservationist Thomas Urquhart tells the intricate story of Maine’s Public Reserved Lands in “Up for Grabs: Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons, and the Battle over Maine’s Public Lands.”

Ranging in size from just 500 to more than 43,00 acres, Public Reserved Lands are enjoyed today by thousands of both visitors and locals, at least those willing to prepare for a rugged backcountry experience when they go camping, hiking, skiing, snowmobiling or hunting. Across the state, the Bureau of Parks & Lands manages more than 590,000 acres today.

“Up for Grabs” is a lively and comprehensive account of nearly 300 years of political maneuvering to protect – and sometimes exploit – remote and beautiful tracts of land scattered throughout the state.

As recounted in the book, in 1759 at the height of the French and Indian Wars, Brigadier General Samuel Waldo stepped ashore near what is now Brewer and gestured at the virgin forest before him, saying “Here is my bound[ary].” He promptly fell over dead from “apoplexy,” perhaps a harbinger of land-related frustrations to come.

“Land Grab” details how, as Urquhart puts it, Maine “lost and regained this magnificent heritage that began with the hapless – and often ethically questionable” – land deals beginning in the 18th century. Urquhart carefully elucidates the many twists and turns the land deals took, from the predictably unfair treatment of the native Penobscot to border skirmishes with New Brunswick to the suppression of vital documents and shenanigans at the State house.

The “Public Lots” story starts in 1783. Massachusetts was nearly broke, desperate to increase revenue to pay off war debt and eager to settle land for commerce. Whenever a thousand-acre township was sold to a private settler in Maine, the law required the state to reserve part of the land. Public Lots were conceived as a civic commitment to the community, to be used for building churches, schools and government facilities. The trouble was, the District of Maine had some 17 million acres to keep track of.

Urquhart writes, “Since the Revolutionary War – starting with Massachusetts before Maine became a state – every time a township in Maine was sold, the state had reserved a portion of the land to be held in trust until a town was incorporated. There were still approximately four hundred thousand acres of these ‘Public Lots’, owned by the state but essentially absorbed by the timber companies.”

The lots were scattered across the state and in many cases inaccessible to all but the most persistent trekkers. Squatters often pirated their timber, and the danger of fire was always high. Was there some way to consolidate the holdings and thereby make them more useful without destroying their natural beauty? It would take until the early 1970s before the parties even attempted to find consensus.

Urquhart begins the book with a prologue set on May 4, 1982, describing a meeting between representatives of the state and Maine’s forest products industries. The topic under discussion was the wood harvested on various publicly owned lands, totaling approximately 320,000 acres. For a hundred years or more, the paper and timber companies had been cutting on them without permission or, in the opinion of the attorney general, the legal right to do so.

The state eventually sued the private companies and won, which returned the “lost” acreage to the state. Those lands and another 200,000 acres that came from negotiations between the state and the private owners make up the backbone of today’s Public Reserved Lands system, which includes the Deboullie Mountain area, the Bigelow Preserve, Mount Kineo, Tumbledown and the Camden Hills.

If “Up for Grabs” has a heroic character, it is Bob Cummings, “a certain journalist working at the state’s paper of record” who wrote, “a simple little feature for a slow news weekend.”

On March 12,1972, Cummings wrote a front-page article about the Public Reserved Lands for the Maine Sunday Telegram, with the banner headline “Public Land Sold and Given Away.” Readers were outraged, and a nine-year effort to reclaim the lots commenced. Cummings, who stuck with the story for nearly a decade, was later credited with launching the largest land conservation effort Maine had ever known.

“Up for Grabs” benefits from 16 pages of full-color inserts that offer a tiny glimpse of the real estate in question and identify major players in the history of the areas, including William King, the first governor of Maine, and John Neptune, governor of the Penobscot Tribe. The book may be best suited for readers with a foreknowledge of the subject, but Urquhart invests it with memorable characters, expert analysis and wry wit. Scholars, history buffs and environmentalists will likely be delighted and impressed.

Urquhart, a former director of Maine Audubon, is also the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth” and has written extensively on the state’s natural resources. He’s a contributor to publications such as Audubon, Down East, Port City Life, the Portland Press Herald and Habitat.

“Up for Grabs” ends with the general success of the programs. For once, justice has seemed to prevail, and some of Maine’s precious wildlands are conserved and protected for future generations.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or 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.