Conserving Maine’s forests is a priority

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Preserving Grafton forest will ensure Maine’s outdoor heritage will be accessible.

Programs that fulfill “essential priorities” is what President Bush called the areas that would get funding in his federal budget for 2007. Mainers call one of these priority areas Grafton Notch. My neighbors and I were pleased and proud to see that Maine’s top conservation priority, Grafton Notch, was also the Bush administration’s top Forest Legacy priority in the country. The Forest Legacy Program helps states conserve private forests and maintain traditional forest uses, such as timber production and recreation.

More than 100 Bethel area residents turned out on a cold February night for the first public meeting on the fate of Grafton Notch and the Mahoosuc Range, the spine of the Appalachian Mountains linking New Hampshire and Maine. They represented a cross-section of Maine, a multi-generational group from every walk of life. We shared feelings of enthusiasm and pride in the fact that Grafton Forest led the list of Forest Legacy projects and expressed a desire to protect the Mahoosucs and our rural way of life.

We come together often as a community to develop and support a vision for conserving our forests and forest-based local economy, and we are thrilled our views are recognized by the people who hold the purse strings in Washington. The president’s budget allots $2 million of Forest Legacy funding to protect that parcel. Mainers have long recognized the parcel as an important out-lot in a mosaic of otherwise conserved lands in the heart of the rapidly developing western Maine mountains.

The effort to protect the Grafton forest has brought conservation groups, community and business groups and individual citizens together in an innovative collaboration focused on reinforcing connections between economic vitality, quality of life and land protection. Living close to the land has shaped a way of life, as generation after generation grew up hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and canoeing in timber company forests where owners gave the public the gift of access to their lands. Now, with large-scale economic changes underway, rural communities are facing a more uncertain future, both in terms of job creation and impacts to quality of life.

The entire economy of this region is dependent upon the continued existence of large areas of undeveloped land where the pursuits of forestry, recreation, education and relaxation can coexist. Preserving the Grafton forest will help ensure that these activities and business opportunities are available to neighbors and guests alike for generations to come.

In order to conserve these vital forests, a substantial investment is needed to purchase land parcels for permanent protection and to secure conservation easements on lands where development should not occur. Having Grafton Notch as the top Forest Legacy project is an encouraging start, but we will need the continued leadership of Maine’s congressional delegation to ensure these funds are approved by Congress.

The will of the people working to conserve Maine’s best places is strong and our resourcefulness runs deep. Mainers from all walks of life are proving that, by pulling together, we can protect our rural landscape and our way of life.

Steve Wight lives in Newry where he operates Sunday River Inn and Cross Country Ski Center. He is a registered Maine guide and is active in community and regional issues through his involvement as a town selectman, land trust president and commissioner of the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission.

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