Steve Sherman has lived in the Aroostook County community of Oxbow Plantation all his life. His ancestors helped settle the area in the 1840s. Today, however, he finds himself in the midst of the town’s closure.
He is the last logger in Oxbow, a community originally centered on the woods industry because of its location at the edge of the North Maine Woods. And over the last couple years, as the first assessor, he’s helped oversee the end of the local government.
On Nov. 8, the plantation of approximately 50 residents voted 37-2 to deorganize, effective July 1. It will give up its decision-making power and sell off its property in exchange for lower property taxes as part of the Unorganized Territory.
Sherman is not despairing of the situation, however. He’s facing it directly.
“These little towns don’t have a ball team any more,” he said as part of a recent BDN Maine Focus project on the future of outlying rural places. But “that happened in its day. And that day is gone. You’ve got to be realistic. Time only runs in one direction.”
“The world will go on without us,” he continued. Oddly, this became an affirmative statement.
Sherman, along with others in the plantation, acknowledged their future, made a decision and followed through in a way that respected the desires of the community.
Maine needs more clear-eyed local leaders like Sherman.
Rural communities, especially those along Maine’s western, northern and eastern edges, are facing a crisis of population loss. They, not outside forces such as the state or think tanks, must decide how they will respond.
Between 1999 and 2015, Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Aroostook and Washington counties, as a group, lost 20.67 percent of their prime working-age people, considered ages 25 to 54. The remaining counties lost 8.6 percent, according to calculations of U.S. Census Bureau data.
The state passed a milestone in 2011 when deaths began to outnumber births. But the counties along the rural rim of Maine reached that point much earlier. The last time they, as a group, saw more births than deaths was in 1995, according to vital statistics data.
The vast majority of rim county communities with fewer than 2,500 people — 93 percent — are projected to lose population between 2014 and 2034, if current trends hold.
The odds of reversing population decline are slim. Especially for places with net out-migration and more deaths than births, “the prospects for future population gains are limited at best,” the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire wrote in a 2006 report on demographic trends in rural America.
It’s natural to search for a solution: more municipal collaboration, better broadband, a new woods product. But, while valuable on their own, they are unlikely to stop, let alone reverse, the incredible loss of people, especially young people, from vast regions.
Instead, communities can be honest with themselves. Their leaders and residents can make a choice. What purpose will their town serve in 20 years? Why will people want to live there?
Some communities may try to change course. They may decide they have natural resources that tourists would like to see and experience and build around that concept as a way to draw in new people. Or they may conclude that new residents are unlikely and opt to simply make life as easy as possible for retirees.
Either way, it’s important for communities to not simply let decline happen to them but to make a choice about how they will respond. Oxbow accepted its reality and did something about its circumstances. It will be difficult, but other communities can, too.