AUGUSTA (AP) – Gov. John Baldacci on Monday announced completion of a $31.8 million deal that bars development across 329,000 acres in the heart of Maine’s North Woods.

The West Branch Project, which was launched four years ago, encompasses the state’s largest contiguous tract of undeveloped forest ever granted permanent protection.

The land, owned for more than a century by Great Northern Paper Co., stretches from the northwest shore of Moosehead Lake up the West Branch of the Penobscot River to the Quebec border, then north to the headwaters of the St. John River.

One component of the project is the state’s purchase of 47,000 acres surrounding Seboomook Lake, Canada Falls Lake, Baker Lake and the St. John River Headwaters Pond.

In addition, the Forest Society of Maine acquired a conservation easement on 282,000 acres along the West Branch.

While the vast majority of the acreage will remain in private ownership, the easement will guarantee its use for recreation, sustainable forestry and ecological preservation, according to the Maine Conservation Department.

“The completion of the West Branch Project is a historic achievement,” Baldacci said. “These 329,000 acres of forest land will be cherished by Maine’s people, and in fact all Americans, for centuries.”

Baldacci was joined by Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, who said the project has already become a model for conservation efforts involving private donors and the government.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy program contributed an unprecedented $19.7 million toward the project, he noted.

Negotiations with Wagner Forest Management, which represented the investment group that currently owns the land, took about two years to complete.

Private land owners in the North Woods have traditionally allowed public access, but the agreement guarantees permanent public access to the West Branch lands.

The West Branch area attracts tens of thousands visitors annually for camping, canoeing, hunting and fishing and other activities.

It also will help preserve important ecological areas, state officials said, including Penobscot Lake, which supports a rare habitat for blueback trout; Big Bog, home to rare turtles, birds, freshwater mussels; and two important nesting areas for bald eagles.

AP-ES-01-05-04 1416EST

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