Residents Band Together to Protect Maine’s Woods from Development

Baxter State Park in Maine's North Woods

Picture having a massive, beautiful expanse of woods near your home. You go there to hike, fish, hunt -- just to enjoy nature. The woods are home to a diverse array of wildlife and plants, it is a model of sustainable forestry, and much more.

That’s the reality of people who live near the 10.5-million-acre forest of the Maine North Woods -- the largest intact tract of forestland east of the Mississippi. The area is home to the nation's largest populations of black bears, moose, loons, native brook trout, and Canada Lynx. Biologists call this swath of woods and pristine waterways a grand central station for wildlife in the Northeast, a key buffer against the impacts of climate change on native species.

Now picture a highway running through it. Unfortunately, that's the reality for Jayne Lello and many other Mainers who are fighting the proposed East-West Highway.

The East-West Highway is a proposed 220-mile-long, four-lane, high-speed private toll highway straight across the heart of the north Maine Woods connecting New Brunswick, Canada, to Quebec, Canada.

"It would basically cut the state of Maine right in half," says Jayne, a long-time volunteer for Sierra Club Maine. "Its destination is Canada, on both ends of the line."

Jayne lives in Sebec, Maine, near the Maine Woods and near where the highway is proposed. She has always loved the Woods and wants to preserve them for future generations.

"The Maine Woods are beautiful. They have been a source of sustenance and inspiration to the Native American populations pre-dating the colonists and to Maine people today."

What's more, continued exploitation of local natural resources by major industry -- with little or no benefits for nearby communities -- is not a good option for Maine.

"The East-West Highway would plow right through my neighborhood. I live in an economically deprived county in Maine. We have lost manufacturing in this part of the state due to global markets, and our population has dwindled. We have many elderly, retired residents, and we have a lot of poverty. Yet we live in an incredibly beautiful area rich in natural resources. I feel that this part of the state is very vulnerable to outside corporate interests that have little to offer the people of this area, but much to gain economically. The East-West highway is an excellent example."

She acknowledges that some change is inevitable for the Maine Woods, but that doesn’t mean the area should be destroyed. Jayne, the Maine Sierra Club, and many others believe that any change for the Maine Woods "must be measured and assessed so that this incredible resource isn’t wasted or sacrificed to an impulsive future."

Right now the exact route of the East-West Highway hasn't been revealed, but that hasn’t stopped activists from spreading the word about it being a major threat to the state’s natural heritage. Jayne says it is essential that Maine residents know this is not a scenic highway being built to promote the state’s beauty or to increase tourism.

The proposal is a private highway, but the amount of land and the transcontinental connection suggests an industrial corridor. "The intention is that access will cost a high commercial toll, it will carry over-sized and over-weight trucks with higher speed limits than Maine allows on its other roads," says Jayne.

Additionally, the general route is the same as state's railroad lines -- which could transport materials more safely, cleanly, and efficiently -- and employ more Maine residents on a full-time basis than on a short-term highway construction jobs.

The proposed highway isn't something only Maine residents should care about. The northern boreal forest that stretches from northern New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and up into Maine is a unique and valuable national treasure. Large forests will become more and more important as climate disruption progresses.

"Another important issue regarding this project is the potential for industrial development along this route," adds Jayne. "The amount of land requested for this 'highway' is significantly greater than our north-south state highway system. Pipelines, tar sands transport, and utility lines are national issues. Maine should not be so naive to miss the significance of a trans-Canadian route across Maine’s undeveloped forest."

Jayne remains committed to her community and the vast Maine Woods. Many others like her are standing up, but more are needed to protect the state's wilderness.

"I feel strongly that to stand by silently and watch the Maine Woods become part of a private or corporate nest egg without a fight, a protest, or a voice would send me to my grave regretful."

Residents Band Together to Protect Maine’s Woods from Development
Picture having a massive, beautiful expanse of woods near your home. You go there to hike, fish, hunt -- just to enjoy nature. Now picture a highway running through it.

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