FRENCHTOWN TOWNSHIP – Seated at a table at the Kokadjo Trading Post on a picture-perfect summer day, owner Fred Candeloro looks out the window toward the western end of First Roach Pond and begins taking count.

“How many boats do you see out there? None! How many fishermen out there? None!” said Candeloro, his voice booming with emotion. “Where’s this overdevelopment they’re talking about?”

Five miles down the lake, inside the rustic 1950s-era camp that she and her husband bought 20 years ago, Joan Wisher has a different perspective.

The retired Massachusetts state trooper laments the disappearance of the owls that used to lull her to sleep, claiming their nests fell victim to construction crews who cut down trees and built roads to develop 89 building lots on and near the pond.

She suggests the Plum Creek Timber Co. project is responsible for everything from a worrisome foam on First Roach to noisy jet skis zooming across the waters.

Today, the emotionally charged battle over development in the Moosehead Lake region has spread as Plum Creek presses ahead with a far bigger development and conservation plan: one that covers 426,000 of its nearly 1 million acres in Maine.

Critics say the proposal would forever change the region’s last great wilderness. Vandals have twice defaced Plum Creek offices in Maine.

To hikers, sportsmen and naturalists, Moosehead is the gateway to Maine’s North Woods, one of the most hallowed areas in the Northeast. Explored 150 years ago by Henry David Thoreau, it is a key part of a vast expanse of forest teeming with moose, deer and bear, and dotted with trout ponds and streams.

The scale of the project, which includes 975 shorefront and back lots for homes, two resorts, three recreational vehicle parks, a golf course, a marina and rental cabins, is unprecedented, making it by far the biggest subdivision ever proposed for Maine.

Under Plum Creek’s plan, 417,000 acres – or 98 percent of the total – would be protected from development for 30 years. There would be easements on 125 miles of hiking and snowmobile trails and permanent conservation of 180 miles of undeveloped shoreland.

The fate of the plan rests with a panel of private citizens, the Land Use Regulation Commission, which serves as the zoning board for the state’s 10.5 million acres of unorganized territory, most of it in the forested and thinly populated north.

The panel, known as LURC, is currently in the early stages of what’s expected to be a yearlong review of Plum Creek’s 570-page application.

Local officials have hailed the development as a potential shot in the arm for a part of Maine bypassed by the economic growth that has been concentrated in the state’s populous southern and coastal counties. Towns on the edge of the North Woods have been losing population for decades as young people move south in search of jobs, leaving local schools and hospitals scrambling to remain open.

To its supporters, the project is a thoughtful blend of conservation and development, one that preserves the region’s longtime custom of allowing public access to private timberlands for fishing, hunting, hiking and snowmobiling.

“This is good for Maine because it’s maintaining Maine traditions,” said Jim Lehner, Plum Creek’s regional general manager. Those traditions include a working forest and open access to hunter, fishermen and others.

Environmental groups, however, have denounced the Plum Creek project, saying it opens the door for wilderness sprawl that threatens to change the character of an area they regard as the heart and soul of Maine. They worry that while development would be permanent, the conservation provisions would last for only 30 years.

Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine likes to display a satellite photo taken at night of the eastern half of the country.

The large patch of total darkness that makes up the North Woods poses a sharp contrast to the illuminated areas that surround it.

“That, in a nutshell, is the easiest way to explain to people why this is a national issue,” Johnson said. “It’s the largest undeveloped block of land east of the Mississippi, and it has national significance.”

Some opponents have an alternate vision, hoping to make it a part of a North Woods National Park. That proposal has stirred strong feelings but remains stalled in the face of opposition from political leaders and many residents of the region.

Plum Creek plans to develop groupings of house lots along already-developed waters such as Moosehead and Brassua lakes in much the same way it sited the 89 lots on First Roach. And if the experience there is any measure, it’s a good bet that there would be no scarcity of buyers.

The First Roach lots, which went on the market for $60,000 to $100,000, have soared in value, according to real estate agent Dave Vaughn. He said the response by buyers underscores a hunger for vacation properties in a wilderness setting six hours by car from Boston.

“I knew there was a demand – I didn’t know how strong,” Vaughn said.

A boat ride down the length of the pond highlights the contrast between the new, clustered properties and older camps like Wisher’s that were built over the years in a scattershot manner. The older cottages, set close to the water and in some cases surrounded by lawns, would be banned under today’s more stringent standards that require 200 feet of frontage, a 100-foot setback and a forest canopy along the shore.

Candeloro welcomes Plum Creek as a good neighbor and said its planned development is preferable to the hodgepodge methods of the past.

He said conservation provisions included in the First Roach project ensure that the awe-inspiring scenery he sees from his store will be there to enjoy for all time.

“With the concept plan, that stays,” he said, pointing to the clear water, verdant forest and mountains in the distance. “That view is going to be here forever.”

But Wisher said Plum Creek’s development has already led to a threefold increase in motor vehicle traffic. And she wonders how long the moose and eagles that frequent the lake will stick around once all the lots are filled with homes. She said the Plum Creek project now before LURC could place an RV park nearby, adding to the pressure on the area.

“It’s lost its magic,” she said. “What we have here is a treasure, a wilderness treasure… But if we let suburban sprawl come all the way up here, nobody will have a place like this ever again.”

On the Net:

Plum Creek Timber Co.:

Natural Resources Council of Maine:

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