The Maine Effect: AMC's Maine Woods Initiative Helps Local Businesses and Schools Alike

August 18, 2011

There’s a woman riding a moose in downtown Greenville, near the shores of Moosehead Lake. Her feet are bare. A smile stretches across her young face. She clutches a camera near her eye, ready to capture the moment. Wind sweeps back her long dark hair, revealing another objective of this ride: A thin black strap stretches over her shoulder, holding a hunting rifle tight against her back.

Who is this mysterious rider? On one level, she is a simple wooden icon hanging above a small shop on the town’s main thoroughfare. On a deeper level, however, she is a symbol of the profound changes that are transforming this region, a shifting balance between nature-based tourism and traditional uses that together define the present—and future—of the Moosehead Lake region.

AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative (MWI) is playing an integral role in building that future. In 2003, AMC purchased 37,000 acres of forests, lakes, and mountains just east of Greenville and launched an ambitious, long-term effort built around several core principles: to promote and increase outdoor recreation opportunities; to manage its lands as a model of sustainable forestry, ecological protection, and land conservation; to connect the area’s youth with the wilds in their own backyard; and to help build a stronger and healthier local economy. Over the ensuing years, MWI has grown to encompass more than 66,000 acres of conservation land and more than 70 miles of trails.

And AMC is just getting started. “As part of Vision 2020, we are working to realize the full potential of the Maine Woods Initiative,” says Walter Graff, senior vice president and chief architect of the initiative. “There is more to be done in lifting up the local economy, creating more recreational and nature-based tourism opportunities, working with our neighbors to conserve more forest land, and perhaps most importantly, getting more local kids—the future stewards of the region—outdoors.”

This ongoing effort has directly affected many of the residents, businesses, and youth of the Moosehead Lake region. This is the story of three people who have witnessed these changes firsthand.

The Ultimate Adventure Outfitter
Mike Boutin is a busy guy. The owner of Northwoods Outfitters sits at a cluttered desk one floor above the retail operations. Historic photos and landscape images rest against the baseboard on one side of the room, waiting to be hung on the surrounding bare walls. One of his employees trots in. Somebody needs payment ASAP. Mike quickly signs a blank check, hands it off, and then leans back in his chair, clasping his hands together on a faded green cap embroidered with the words “North Maine Woods.”

His youthful, clean-shaven features relax as he reflects on his personal connection with the region. “Moosehead Lake has always been special to my family. My father and grandfather were avid sportsmen,” he recounts. “This is where we came to play. I started fishing here when I was 9.”

Born in the Winslow-Waterville area, Mike attended high school in Freeport and then spent four years in the military as a medic and surgical assistant. After that, he spent four more years doing service work in places like Bosnia and Somalia. He returned to Greenville in 1994. “What drew me back were the huge tracts of undeveloped land here,” he says. That winter he wrote the business plan for Northwoods Outfitters while working as a lift operator at the nearby Squaw Mountain ski area.

Today a large sign adorns the roof of the building and declares Northwoods Outfitters to be “Maine’s Ultimate Adventure Outfitter.” In addition to selling camping, fishing, and other outdoor gear, Mike employs nine guides as part of his outfitting service, which offers moose-watching trips, fishing and rafting excursions, snowmachine and ATV tours, and other outdoor adventures. It’s by far the largest such operation in town.

“Nature-based tourism is not a new thing here,” he says. “It dates back to well before the turn of the [20th] century. What is new, however, is the different activities that are now available.” Traditional pursuits such as fishing and hunting remain popular. But over the past two decades other forms of outdoor recreation, including hiking, paddling, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and other human-powered activities, have significantly increased in appeal.

AMC is working to further expand this array of potential adventures, building a network of hiking trails and campsites on its property, operating three remote sporting camps for overnight guests, establishing bike routes and canoe access points, and creating cross-country ski trails—including lodge-to-lodge multiday ski adventures. All of its lands, trails, and waters are open to the public.

In the summer, Northwoods Outfitters is a regular stopping point for both AMC visitors and staff. In the winter, guests staying at AMC’s lodges rendezvous at the store prior to heading out. Pat Gruenberg, Mike’s life partner of nearly 20 years, helps coordinate AMC’s winter logistics, especially for lodge-to-lodge skiing excursions. “AMC has had a great impact on increasing cross-country ski interest in the area,” she says. “They’ve also become much more involved in the community.”

Mike agrees. “Since the beginning, AMC has always made an effort to have a relationship with us and work with local businesses to help them,” he says. “They bring more people to our business and have given us the opportunity to do more guiding for their guests.”

AMC’s goal is to boost the local economy while increasing outdoor recreation opportunities. “In 2010, AMC spent a combined $4 million in the regional community,” says Gary Dethlefsen, AMC’s MWI operations manager. “Much of that, more than $2 million, was for the renovation of Gorman Chairback Camp, AMC’s newest overnight facility. Nearly all of the contractors we hired—and most of the material used for the renovation—came from the surrounding area. At one point, there were more than 30 people from the Greenville area out there working.” AMC also purchases all of its food, fuel, and other supplies for its sporting camps from local businesses.

Forester for Life
Ted Shina stops his truck and stares ahead at a stretch of rutted dirt road. He thinks for a moment, shifts into park, and hops out. “Hmm…maybe it’s not so bad.” He tamps a black boot on the ground, then takes a step. The ground abruptly slurps underfoot and sucks him down past his ankle. “Nope,” he confirms as he gingerly dances over to more solid ground. “Would’ve been up to my ears if I drove through that.”

Ted is an operations forester for Maine-based Huber Resources, tasked with managing all of the forestry operations on AMC’s Maine Woods property. A resident of Old Town, about 60 miles south of Greenville, he’s been stomping around the woods of central and northern Maine as a forester for 34 years. Today he’s on the southern half of AMC’s property, scouting out a potential area for logging operations this summer.

Ted looks up the road. “Well, there’s nothing like shoe leather.” He digs out a bright orange vest, throws it over a camouflage jacket, and starts walking. The drumbeat of a grouse echoes through the damp forest as he strides down the overgrown road, continually scanning left and right, using decades of experience to quickly evaluate the species mix, terrain, cords per acre, and other details essential to planning a successful forestry operation.

“Yeah, I’m a native Mainiac,” he says as he peers intently into a stand of towering hardwoods. “I was born here and have been here most of my life since childhood. I was one of those rare kids who knew exactly what he wanted. I wanted to be a forester.” These days he manages nearly 100,000 acres for three different landowners in Maine. “I do everything,” he explains. “I pick the areas to be harvested. I hire the contractors. I walk the woods, identify areas to cut, flag the boundaries, mark areas to be avoided, and generally oversee the entire process.”

He does it all according to the strict guidelines that AMC has established for its land. Only half of AMC’s 66,000 acres has been designated for timber harvesting. Of the remainder, more than 21,000 acres are in designated ecological reserves to protect significant natural resources such as wild brook trout habitat, with the difference in other no-harvest areas including wetlands, steep slopes, and special resource protection areas. Where forestry operations do occur, the goal is to create a healthy and diverse mix of trees, age classes, and wildlife habitat, all geared toward the long-term health of these woods.

“They’re very specific on when, where, what, and how we harvest,” Ted says.

As with its nature-based tourism efforts, AMC’s sustainable forestry operations help support the region’s economic engine. “There’s no question that AMC impacts the local economy in a beneficial way,” Ted says.“Since 2004, I’ve worked with five different contractors [to harvest on AMC’s property], all from the area. On any active site, there are between six and eight people out there, then at least six truck drivers on top of that. Add in road maintenance and AMC is directly supporting about 15 jobs every season. Plus for every logging job, there are six or seven other supporting jobs that service it. These trees,” he gestures toward the misty forest, “support a lot of people.”

That support extends even further when you include workers at eight different mills in the region. Much of the harvested wood goes to Milo, less than 30 miles away, but Ted sends wood to a variety of other locations as well. He ticks them off like a lesson in local geography—Jackman, Hinckley, Lincoln, Dolby. Add in the taxes that AMC pays on its property and the total list of those who benefit becomes long indeed, Ted explains. “All told, AMC helps support local governments, schools, mill workers, contractors, truck drivers, equipment dealers, fuel dealers, local businesses,…and me.”

“AMC is really trying to do it all,” he concludes as he returns to his truck, scouting complete. “I really like the model they’re following now. In my opinion, AMC should be proud of what they’re doing. As a member myself, I’m proud of what they’re doing.”

The Teacher, Inspired
The classrooms of Greenville High School nestle inside a monumental brick building lined at regular intervals with huge white-framed windows. It’s a school built to accommodate many hundreds of students. A few decades ago, it did. But enrollment has dwindled over the years. As the local timber industry declined, jobs that once attracted families diminished. Many left. Today the entire Greenville School District, from kindergarten through high school, consists of only 243 students. Thirteen of them compose the entire seventh grade.

Dawna Blackstone, the school health coordinator, regularly spends time with them in her cavernous classroom. Dressed in green capris and a beige sweater, Dawna gestures expressive as she recounts the past. “I was born and raised in Greenville, attended this high school as a kid. Back then, there were a lot more students, enough even to have a football team.”

Her reflections soon return to the present, to the exceptional landscape that surrounds Greenville. She has intimate family connections with its woods and waters. Her father was a game warden. Her husband is a forest ranger. “It’s a beautiful part of Maine. I love getting out to ski and snowshoe and canoe and kayak and swim.”

She points out the window. “You could almost throw a rock and hit Moosehead Lake from there. Yet I think so many kids here are missing what’s right in their own backyards. A lot of them have never gone camping, been in a canoe, climbed a mountain….” She pauses. “Kids here are definitely less engaged with the outdoors than they used to be. They’re wasting the potential of this place.”

AMC is working to help change that. As part of its Maine Woods Initiative, the organization has set a goal to meaningfully connect every student in Piscataquis County with the outdoors at least three times before he or she graduates from high school, an effort known as the Moosehead Area Schools Project. Last September, AMC hosted Dawna’s seventh-grade class for an overnight adventure at Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins. They hiked up nearby Indian Mountain, played in the surrounding forest, slept in cabins, and went swimming and canoeing.

“Taking a trip to Little Lyford was a first-time experience for many of them,” she recounts. “There’s something about climbing a mountain, seeing how big the world is, getting out and not hearing the traffic and all the craziness. Life slows down. You enjoy nature for what it is. When we went to Little Lyford, it was like that. Seeing the kids up there, they were glowing. I think the experience instilled some new skills and inspiration for the rest of their lives.”

Dawna’s experience exemplifies AMC’s outreach in the region. In 2010, AMC’s day programs involved 369 students from Greenville and the nearby towns of Brownville and Milo. Activities vary depending on season, from cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter to paddling and map-and-compass skills in summer. In addition, 50 to 60 students per year head out on an overnight excursion to a nearby AMC lodge. Schools that are struggling to meet basic expenses pay nothing for day programs and only a small fee for multiday outings. The remaining costs are covered by AMC through grants and other funding sources.

“I didn’t know much about AMC until they approached us a few years ago,” Dawna concludes as her students begin filing into class. “I knew they had bought some land in the area, but that was about it. I’ve really appreciated how they reach out to schools. It’s been a nice surprise.”

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.