North Maine Woods celebrates 45th anniversary

This year the North Maine Woods organization (NMW) is celebrating 45 years of operation. The program is a cooperative effort by many private landowners in northwestern Maine to keep 3.5 million acres of forest land open to public use. 

al-column-sigThe cooperative relationship between forest landowners began as unsettled townships in Maine were sold to investors beginning in the 1820s. Logs were floated to saw mills. Saw mills, textile mills and others relied on water power, so, landowners and mill owners collaborated on the construction of water storage dams in the headwaters.  Locating and maintaining property boundary lines is shared by adjacent owners to this day.

The Maine Forest Service is successor to the private landowners’ collaborative effort to construct fire towers and run telephone lines through the woods to report fires and organize firefighting efforts.

As trucks came into use and the days of log drives waned, landowners collaborated on road construction and maintenance.  The road building era required much cooperation to coordinate construction and maintenance of roads across multiple ownerships.  Landowners developed a toll system based upon cords of wood per mile of travel paid, which they pay to each other through an honor system to offset costs of maintenance and bridges.

As roads were built, sportsmen discovered they opened up camping, fishing and hunting opportunities. When public use started to conflict with forest management, forest landowners again worked cooperatively to create the North Maine Woods management system in 1971.

From the onset landowners established the following goals for the organization:

Manage public use in concert with timber production. While managing and harvesting forest products is the main reason for owning tracts of commercial forest land, public recreational use is compatible if done in an organized manner.  Road safety has always been an issue.  Visitors are educated about driving on the extensive private gravel road system to avoid crashes and strandings in remote locations. In the interest of road safety, ATVs, oversized camper trailers, motorcycles and horseback riding are prohibited.

nmw-outline-in-maine-croppedProvide opportunities for high quality, traditional recreation. Campsites are provided and maintained with the basic amenities for primitive camping – outhouse, fire ring and sheltered picnic tables. They are often associated with prime fishing, hunting, canoeing and scenic locations. Traditionally, this has meant not advertising to increase use to the point of overcrowding, plus avoiding activities that detract from traditional uses.

Standardize and simplify visitor land use policies on multiple ownerships. If there had not been an effort to standardize visitor use policies 45 years ago, when there were only 19 landowners and managers, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the public to comply with land use requirements of more than 35 landowners today.  Today the landownership acreage consists these types of owners:

  • Family groups, 39 percent.
  • Corporations 33 percent.
  • Institutional investors, 17 percent.
  • Conservation organizations, 5 percent.
  • State of Maine, 6 percent. 

Representatives from all of these entities serve on the NMW Board of Directors.

Operate on a financially self-sustaining basis. As with all of the other shared agreements – road use tolls and fire suppression self-assessments – managing public user required a mechanism to pay for itself.  Visitors, camp owners and guides pay fees that are relative to the costs for accommodating them on private land within the NMW.  Under NMWs non-profit corporate structure, none of the fees paid by the public can be passed on to landowners.

Over the past 45 years North Maine Woods has had many successes, including:

  • There is not one report of a forest fire starting from public camping.      
  • There are few problems related to littering or illegal dumping.
  • With checkpoint receptionists recording the names of everyone who enters, there are few problems related to theft, vandalism and arson for landowners and private camp owners.

Landowners have also worked closely with state agencies including the Maine Forest Service, Bureau of Parks and Public Lands, Land Use Planning Commission, Maine Warden Service and Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Management Divisions.

NMW maintains a staff of four year-round managers and 45 seasonal staff.  Their responsibilities are to: welcome the public and explain visitor use policies; track people entering and leaving which results in fewer problems for landowners, wood harvesting contractors and private camp owners; and maintaining 350 campsites for public use and managing bear bait sites to benefit landowners and guides. 

In the last decade the organization has taken advantage of new technologies which have helped keep management costs reasonable while keeping land use problems to a minimum.  Satellite internet, high resolution cameras and improvements in cell phone equipment allow the installation of remotely operated, automated checkpoints which eliminates the need for employees to live on site.

Over the past 45 years, NMW has been recognized for its efforts to keep millions of acres of private forest land open to the public.  In 1996 NMW was recognized as one of the most exemplary private conservation organizations in the country by President Reagan’s Council on Environmental Quality.  In 2000, NMW was invited to serve on a panel before the Congressional House Committee on Forests and Forest Health.  The panel topic was “Lessons for National Forests.”  Last year the organization was honored to receive Maine’s “Large Landowner of the Year Award” by the Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

For more information on NMW, please check on line at or call 207-435-6213.