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By Misty Edgecomb, Bangor Daily News Staff

Monday (06/20/2005), LITTLE LYFORD POND - Despite the deceptive solitude of a sun-dappled canopy and the hush of a spongy forest trail, nothing in the North Woods stays quiet for long.

Before the Appalachian Mountain Club had even announced in 2003 that it had acquired 36,691 acres between Greenville and Baxter State Park, some area residents had their guard up.

Rancorous debate over a potential national park in the region has kept nerves frayed, with every land sale raising the stakes. And the Appalachian Mountain Club is a defender of wilderness, a Boston-based bastion of environmentalism - anathema to many rural Mainers.

But over the past 18 months, the club has hired loggers from local crews to cut timber, opened their gates to snowmobilers and won over local firebrands.

Now, local people see the club as a catalyst and partner in their efforts to resuscitate a nature tourism economy that flagged when the railroad stopped carrying visitors to the state's interior almost a century ago.

"They walk a fine line," said Donna Fichtner, a Greenville resident and chairwoman of the Maine Tourism Bureau's natural resources committee, during a tour of the property Friday. "What good is it to have this wonderful resource if no one can enjoy it?"

The Appalachian Mountain Club has represented the interests of hikers and paddlers since it was founded in 1886. It's not a land trust.

But as they watched the industrial forest transform - broken up into increasingly smaller parcels and traded like stocks - club members saw a need to secure land for recreation.

"If we hadn't purchased the whole property, [International Paper Co.] would have likely sold it off in several pieces," said Gerry Whiting, project manager for the Maine Woods Initiative, an AMC effort to preserve recreation land throughout the region.

"The more the Maine woods gets fragmented, the more prone it is to development," he said.

So the club approached several forest landowners about buying a large chunk of the North Woods.

In 2003, International Paper bit.

Then the real work began.

"This is the biggest endeavor the club has ever taken on in its history," Whiting said, describing his group's goal of balancing wilderness with ecotourism and commercial forestry.

After paying $14.2 million for the property, the club needs to sell a conservation easement to the state to help pay off its loans.

The Land for Maine's Future program has committed $1 million, and if the all-but-penniless land conservation effort is revived with a bond this fall, AMC may be seeking several more. Additionally, $5 million in grants from the federal Forest Legacy program are pending in Washington. In exchange for the public money, people will gain deed restrictions promising access and protecting 12,000 contiguous acres (including the Appalachian Trail) as "forever wild."

However, logging, a foundation of the local economy, was always part of the plan - despite its unpopularity with some environmentalists.

"There are folks in our organization who don't think any of the trees should be cut - ever," said Gerry Whiting, project manager for the Maine Woods Initiative.

And deciding where and when to cut in a decades-old commercial forest hasn't been easy.

"We don't want to be stepping on sensitive places," said AMC staff scientist Dave Publicover.

 After a year of ecological surveys, Publicover settled on nearly 16,000 acres - 43 percent of the property - for "gentle" logging. Within three years, he hopes, the plans may be certified "sustainable" by the Forest Stewardship Council.

"We've spent the past 10 years telling other people how to do [forestry] - now we're out here, and the shoe is on the other foot," Publicover said, standing in the AMC's commercial forest.

Large trees with value for wildlife, like the 109 species of birds known to inhabit the region, are preserved.

Certain species are saved to help perpetuate the 30 distinct ecological communities that make up the landscape. And when trees are cut for pulp or lumber, consideration is given to how a harvested forest will look to hikers who may happen by.

Conservative logging netted 5,600 cords of wood from Township 7 Range 9 last year, with the profits just covering property taxes. A local crew, known for working with less particular landowners, was hired for the job, and they followed AMC's unusual requests to the letter, Publicover said.

"It was a chance for the crew to show that they could do a good job, that they weren't just cut-and-gut beasts," he said.

Elsewhere on the AMC land, Publicover is trying to bring back the wilderness of tall pines and birches that existed before logging.

In this "ecological reserve," of a little more than 10,000 acres - 29 percent of the property - motorized vehicles and forest management will be banned so that hikers, hunters and fishermen can enjoy a natural landscape on its way to old-growth status. Restoring the "big woods" could take 150 years or more, but that's all right with the scientist, who jokes about not expecting he'll live to see the result of his efforts.

"We have a long time horizon. Nature has a long time horizon," Publicover said. "We'll work with what the land gives us."

Eventually, this property should contain one of the largest wilderness areas in Maine, a point of pride that's also "kind of sad," considering Maine's potential, he said.

Much of the ecological reserve skirts the Appalachian Trail, protecting the wild vistas for hikers on the 2,174-mile trek from Georgia to the summit of Mount Katahdin.

Formal recognition of a connector trail between the trail and Gulf Hagas is forthcoming, which could encourage hikers to travel about five miles off the trail to Little Lyford Pond Camps, operated by AMC.

Ten miles of new trails have also been cut through the forest. AMC hopes to have a trail network of 150 miles, much of it linking remote ponds where AMC-owned canoes will sit, waiting for paddlers.

"We're trying to figure out how to get people from one pond to another - walking, not driving," Whiting said.

The AMC land is at the southern fringe of the big woods, surrounded by communities like Greenville, Brownville and Millinocket. And having more nature tourism opportunities "sandwiched" between these population centers could breathe life into the tourism industry, Whiting said.

"Just a piece of bread doesn't taste too good. You need something in the middle," he said.

Local people agree - so long as their values and priorities aren't sacrificed in the process.

"People value what rural means here," said Roger Merchant of Dover-Foxcroft, chairman of the Piscataquis Tourism Task Force.

With the Appalachian Trail, the precipitous cliffs of Gulf Hagas (the "Grand Canyon" of Maine) and the dozens of remote trout streams, the region has a long history of charming visitors from the city - and its small towns and unpretentious residents are a big part of the attraction.

"If we do it right, it won't look a whole lot different than it does right now," said county Commissioner Tom Lizotte.

For information about the Maine Woods Initiative, visit the Appalachian Mountain Club Web site at www.outdoors.org.

©2005 Bangor Daily News, used with permission