Most of Maine’s vast forestland is privately owned yet remains open to the public. Praised as unique to Maine, the setup is necessary because the woods is the center of two of Maine’s biggest industries: forest products and recreation.

It requires a delicate hand, but it works. And it works because of people like Al Cowperthwaite.

Cowperthwaite is retiring after 39 years as director of North Maine Woods, time he has spent guaranteeing access to the organization’s property by building consensus and soothing disagreements between landowners and the public who uses that land to hunt, fish, hike and snowmobile.

North Maine Woods was created in 1971 to manage access and recreational opportunities across 3.5 million acres in northwestern Maine, a full 16% of the state’s area. Once locked and gated by the timber companies who owned the land, it’s now used by roughly 70,000 people a year — about the same as Baxter State Park.

In the landmark agreement that created the organization, the timber companies gave up development rights in exchange for the go-ahead to take more fiber out of the forests. It kept the forestland from being turned into subdivisions, or whatever a developer may have come up with, and opened up the logging roads to guides, sportsmen, snowmobilers, and the owners of about 700 private camps on the property.

Cowperthwaite, who grew up around his family’s campground on Nickerson Lake in Aroostook County, was hired in 1976 out of the University of Maine to inventory all the recreational structures on the land.

As told this week by Deirdre Fleming of the Portland Press Herald, Cowperthwaite lived in a makeshift camper from June to November, traveling to every part of the property — and getting to know the people who used it.

He built relationships over the years that he could call on when trouble arose. He built trust and became known as a good-faith negotiator when people with different views and agendas came into conflict.

“Guides are type-A personalities,” one former camp owner told Fleming. “Then you have to deal with landowners. That middle man has got to be someone like Al. He is a calm voice for everyone.”

Cowperthwaite has seen a lot change in 45 years. Deer hunters once made up more than a third of the property’s visitors. Now moose and bear draw more. Grouse get the most of all.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is how Maine relies on a symbiotic relationship between landowners of vast tracts of forest and the public who enjoys it year-round. The public gets to enjoy private land because landowners understand how much it means to Maine and its visitors, and the people who use it, mostly, treat the land with respect.

That takes a level of trust built over years. Which takes people like Al Cowperthwaite, who showed that the Maine woods is big enough for all of us, as long as we all are prepared to give something up for the greater good.


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