PORTLAND — Plum Creek Timber Co. has completed a deal with The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Society of Maine that puts 363,000 acres in Maine’s North Woods into a conservation easement that bans development and limits logging while allowing public access for hunting, snowmobiling and other recreation.
The swath of land near Moosehead Lake is the largest contiguous conservation easement in America, Mike Tetreault, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine, said Tuesday at an event formally announcing completion of the deal.
The easement was part of Plum Creek’s plan that rezoned nearly 400,000 acres in the Moosehead region to allow the Seattle-based land management company to develop a subdivision over 30 years with 821 residential lots and 1,204 additional residential units at two resorts. While the development is still years away, the easement was officially completed on Monday.
The easement covers land that includes 80 ponds, 30 sites with rare or endangered plants, 200 miles of shoreline and 800 miles of rivers and streams, said Tetreault.
“You have ecological jewels that are conserved, you have public access to an area of 400,000 acres and you have sustainable forestry as part of the easement,” he said. “You have the economic culture, you have the recreational culture and the ecological conservation that are all part of this.”
The property links with other protected lands to create an interconnected area of more than 2 million acres — stretching from the St. John Valley to Baxter State Park and Moosehead Lake — that’s protected from development and open for public access.
The Nature Conservancy paid $10 million to Plum Creek for the easement. The Forest Society of Maine holds the easement and enforces the conditions.
The easement allows logging, one of the region’s economic engines, as long as loggers use sustainable harvesting practices. It also places restrictions on ecologically sensitive areas while allowing public access for recreational purposes including hunting, fishing, hiking and snowmobiling on 160 miles of trails.
Luke Muzzy, a manager with Plum Creek, said the easement helps both the forestry and the tourism industries, two of the longtime economic mainstays in the region that have fallen on tough times in recent years. Plum Creek has not set a timeline on when it will begin developing the land, he said.
“It’s hoped by many in the Moosehead Lake region that this concept plan with its conservation, recreational opportunities and development will help revive the economy,” he said.
When Plum Creek announced plans in 2005 for the largest subdivision in the state’s history, opposition groups called it wilderness sprawl, saying it would threaten the character of the North Woods, whose natural beauty was detailed 150 years ago in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.
On Tuesday, Restore: The North Woods issued a statement saying a better alternative than putting the land into an easement would be to permanently protect it within a new national park.
The easement still allows some development and uses that aren’t compatible with conservation, said Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of the conservation group.
“The easement deal is great for Plum Creek shareholders, who are getting $10 million, as well as millions more for selling other lands for conservation,” he said. “Whether it is a good deal for the people of Maine and for the land and wildlife in the region, time will tell.”