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28.11.04

North Woods Failure

Park Debate Is A Battle Over The Future Of Maine

... Infuriating her neighbors, [Roxanne] Quimby has banned hunting and plans to end snowmobiling on what she calls her "sanctuary." And her long-term goal is about as palatable to some rural Mainers as tofu with their venison: a 3.2 million-acre national park that would be larger than Yosemite and Yellowstone combined, and where hunting, snowmobiling and logging would be heavily restricted.

... "For generations, the paper companies sort of managed everything for us up here," said Patrick K. McGowan, commissioner of Maine's Department of Conservation. "They gave sportsmen pretty much free rein, and in turn the people up here helped out as stewards of the land. But with all of these new buyers, nobody knows quite what will happen now, and people are getting nervous."

... "I think there's enough land here for all of us to use the way we want to. I never expected such controversy, but at this point I have $20 million at stake in this argument," said Quimby, who splits her time between Winter Harbor, Maine, and Palm Beach, Fla. "At the end of the day, I insist that this is my property. I paid for it, and I paid to control its fate while I own it."


This is an interesting story, since it's the environmentalists who are defending the prerogatives of private property while their opponents are insisting on the continuance of an unofficial commons. At the risk of sounding Marxist, though, it's not all that strange. Those who own have a vested interest in the benefits that a private property system gives them, while those who merely use have a vested interest in extracting obligations from owners.

I see this story as an indication of environmentalism's failure. The people of rural Maine are the perfect place to begin expanding environmentalism's base, undoing the perception (and all too often reality) of environmentalism as an elitist movement. To judge from the presidential election results, Mainers are already more liberal than the people in most rural areas. But they also share that conservative conservationist ethos, a respect for the aesthetic as well as livelihood-supporting functions of nature and a tradition of (quasi) common property based around hunting and fishing.

The environmentalists could have approached the issue from a democratic perspective. They could have started off by trying to understand how the people of rural Maine manage their environment and what their values are. They could have found common ground, promoting a mixture of both groups' interests while working together against common enemies like the fickle timber industry (carefully distinguishing corporate higher-ups and the global market from local jobs). Instead, they plowed ahead with an a priori model of wilderness preservation, creating a backlash against outsider interference. Preserving the north woods doesn't have to come at the expense of Mainers' way of life, but they won't believe that unless they can be given some sort of "ownership" in the process and outcome.

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