Author Thomas Urquhart. Credit: Courtesy of Down East Books

The following is an excerpt from “Up for Grabs: Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons, and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands” by Thomas Urquhart, set to be published in June 2021 from Down East Books.

In 1958, Bob Cummings, a 29-year-old journalism graduate from the University of Illinois, came home to Bath on the midcoast of Maine. Located on a tidal stretch of the Kennebec River, Bath’s reputation as the “city of ships” was based on a heritage of shipbuilding, exemplified today by Bath Iron Works. Lanky and with a craggy demeanor even then, Cummings soon found a job at the local newspaper, The Bath Times, a small daily with a circulation that hovered around three thousand. In various incarnations, its lineage could be traced back to Maine’s earliest years as a state. When Cummings got there, “The entire news staff was essentially me and a series of part-time society reporters.”

Credit: Courtesy of Down East Books

In Bob Cummings’s voice, the Public Lots story begins with an almost saga-like lilt. “There was a fellow by the name of White Nichols who lived on a hillside in Wiscasset, on property owned by a relative. He lived in a one-room camp with his wife and teenage kid. He had drifted out of the habit of earning a living, but he was into preserving things.” Among other things, Nichols was the enthusiastic founder of the Benedict Arnold Expedition Historical Society. Herb Hartman, who later became a long-time director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Recreation, went hiking with Nichols (and Cummings) on the Benedict Arnold Trail and remembered him as an Elmer Fudd-ish gentleman. “As soon as I arrived in town,” continued Cummings, “White started showing up in my office at least once a week with ideas for stories.” One of the first was how a dam was blocking Atlantic salmon from swimming up the nearby Sheepscot River. Cummings wrote the story, and largely as a result the dam was notched to facilitate fish passage in 1960.

Another Cummings story led to Maine’s first Clean Water Act. It was really a statewide story, but with two of Maine’s major watersheds — the combined Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers — draining through Bath and bringing waste from “all the towns up and down the two rivers plus six or seven paper mills,” the reporter realized it had a local hook. He wrote front-page stories day after day, sending copies up to Augusta to be put on the desks of legislators and, especially, the Water Improvement Commission. “We were,” he claimed, “the only paper in the state that gave it any serious coverage.” He didn’t expect it “to go anyplace,” but Cummings became personally invested in the Clean Water Act, even when friends and colleagues told him it was a dream—it would never pass. When it did, he was reluctant to take credit for it. “Who knows why it passed?” was as far as he would go.

Then one day in 1963 Nichols appeared with a new cause. Somewhere he had picked up a copy of Austin Wilkins’s report on the Public Reserved Lands, which had come out that year. Write something about the “Public Lots,” he told Cummings. “And I said, ‘What are the Public Lots?’” Cummings recalled. “And Nichols laid it all out.” Since the Revolutionary War — starting with Massachusetts before Maine became a state — every time a township in Maine was sold, the state had reserved a portion of the land, to be held in trust until a town was incorporated.

There were still approximately four hundred thousand acres of these “Public Lots,” owned by the state but essentially absorbed by the timber companies. Cummings was building up a formidable track record as an environmental journalist who could clap onto an issue and get political results. But this one sounded too far-fetched for a small local daily. Its readers, “mostly BIW employees,” were unlikely to take an interest in an issue nobody had heard of, hundreds of miles away in the North Woods. Cummings didn’t follow up on the idea just then, but “filed it away” in the back of his mind.

At about the same time, a big rough-and-tumble man of the woods named Ed Sprague was also getting exercised about the Public Lots. Like Nichols, Sprague was a man on many missions, and he had developed a reputation as something of a gadfly. He was a regular fixture at public hearings on legislation or rule-making — any meeting to which the public was invited — and he was known for being very direct, not to say outspoken. He had what Richard Barringer later called an “intrepid insistence that injustice needed to be righted,” but that didn’t make Ed Sprague easy to deal with.

“Mostly in a challenging mode” was how diplomatic Annee Tara remembered Sprague. He was convinced that “he had a clear view of the public interest that was clouded in most of the rest of us [public officials] by something else, like politics or who knows.” When she saw him coming, she didn’t say, “‘Oh boy!,’” Tara confessed. “It was mostly, ‘Now what?’” She was working in the office of Governor Joseph Brennan the day Sprague came in with a plan to stop hunters setting out bait for bears by prosecuting them under the anti-littering laws. “He had these ideas,” She paused. “And some of them were better than others.”

By far his best idea — the one for which he will be remembered — was that Maine must start paying attention to its Public Lots again. Growing up and working in the woods, Sprague had heard about them all his life, but he never really knew what they were. What he saw happening around his camp in remote Chain of Ponds prompted him to find out. The state had leased part of a Public Lot on Natanis Point (named after a Norridgewock Indian who joined Benedict Arnold’s march on Quebec) to a paper company which turned it into a commercial campground. By a stroke of the pen, Maine people would now have to pay to camp or hike on what had once been theirs — and in Sprague’s view, should have been still.

“Ed was outraged at what he saw the state doing with the Public Lots,” Barringer explained. Like many others were beginning to do when faced with an issue that needed airing, Sprague took his beef to the Maine Times, a relatively new player in the game of Maine politics and the environment. Started in 1968, the Maine Times was by this time a critical part of the dialogue about natural resource use in the state. It was thoroughly a product of its time, the 1960s, and it very consciously brought advocacy journalism to Maine. An unabashed point of view regularly challenged the political and economic powers in the state. For legislators, Maine Times was a must-read. Every Thursday early afternoon — it was a weekly — a copy would appear on every lawmaker’s desk, fresh from the printer in Belfast. Business in the chambers would stop while they all read it to find out what was going on. “Leaders could not not read it,” Barringer recalled. Indispensable to policymakers, the paper affected other environmental reporting in Maine, as well. Peter Cox, one of the founding editors, used to say that Bob Cummings got to write the environmental stories he wanted to cover by holding the threat of a Maine Times scoop over his editors’ heads.

In his interview with the paper, Ed Sprague was characteristically blunt. The problem was people “land-grabbing for their own greedy interests.” Maine had to get serious and develop an actual policy toward the people’s land, instead of “squandering” in a “haphazard manner,” as it had been doing for over a hundred years.

Next Sprague went to enlist the help of the Maine Audubon Society. At the time it was led by Richard Anderson, who, as conservation commissioner, would play a major role in the final fate of the Public Lots. In 1972, as its first real environmentalist director, Anderson was guiding Maine Audubon’s transition from the fusty natural history society of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s day into a major force on behalf of the state’s environment. The organization was housed on Baxter Boulevard, the Olmstead-designed necklace around Portland’s Back Cove, in a building more generally identified as the showplace for an oriental rug company.

When Sprague cornered him, Anderson was headed for a meeting, and he soon began to feel like the Wedding Guest button-holed by the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem. “He’s telling me this story, and he’s kind of a rabid guy,” Anderson remembered. His advice was to talk to Bob Cummings, who was now with the Portland newspapers, having left the Bath Times in 1967. With the first Earth Day just around the corner, Cummings’s beat was the environment, and he generally had a feature on one issue or another in the Maine Sunday Telegram, Maine’s major Sunday newspaper. Sprague and Cummings, mused Annee Tara: “Two crusty guys; together they must’ve been quite a pair.”

Cummings was an “extraordinarily thoughtful and analytical reporter,” said Jon Lund, who, as attorney general, would start the court case to reclaim the Public Lots. From his days as a state senator in the 1960s, Lund remembered watching Cummings at the back of a legislative hearing room, “sort of hunched over in a corner,” quietly making notes and just occasionally asking

questions. He was one of the few environmental reporters “who could put things together and connect the dots.” Lund had grown up hunting and fishing in the Maine woods, which gave him his own perspective on what was at stake if the government didn’t take steps to protect its wildlands. Maine may have been dubbed “Vacationland” as far back as the nineteenth century, but setting aside open space for public recreation was never a priority for state officials. With the paper companies letting people hunt and camp and fish on their huge ownerships, legislators saw no need to own — and have to manage — much land.

Just how shortsighted a policy that had been was suddenly becoming very clear. By the late 1960s, a number of factors — the opening of the interstate, for one — were fueling a boom in second-home development in Maine. As officials strove to make up for lost opportunities, the state was paying for the delay in inflated real estate prices. In that context, it seemed mistaken to be so casual with four hundred thousand acres of land already belonging to the people of Maine.

Such was the thrust of Bob Cummings’s front-page article about the Public Reserved Lands in the Maine Sunday Telegram on March 12, 1972. “Public Land Sold And Given Away” was the banner headline. “Maine is pondering the disappearance of its coastline to out-of-state developers and speculators,” the article began. It was struggling to buy what was left of its undeveloped lakeshores so Maine people could enjoy them. And all the while, “the recreational potential of some 400,000 acres the public already owns continues to be neglected, sold and given away.” Those Public Lots — scattered all over the state, mostly in tracts of about a thousand acres, and invisible to the public — represented a potential prize far exceeding a mere windfall of acres. These lands “straddle mountain tops and slopes, encompass miles of lake, pond and riverfront, and include within their environs hundreds of free flowing wilderness streams,” wrote Cummings. “This is the amazing story of the state’s little known, and little understood Public Lots — a vast legacy of public domain dating from colonial times.”

It was exactly 184 years — less a fortnight — since the Resolve of the Massachusetts General Court had first codified the Public Lots. After two centuries, wrote Cummings, their tale was “one of giveaways and neglect. It’s doubtful that he realized immediately what he had started. “I was short of an idea for a story one week,” he remembered. Casting about for an issue, White Nichols’s tale came to mind. “I told my editor, Let’s do a story on the Public Lots. He’d never heard of them, as nobody else had. But I did the story.” Having convinced his editor that it was a story, Cummings went and “fished around” the State House. He interviewed Austin Wilkins, the forest commissioner who had written the report on the Public Reserved Lands ten years before. Wilkins’s position was that when the state sold the rights to cut trees on the Public Lots, they had included the surface rights as well. Since about 1870, all the state owned were the minerals under the soil.

Like a good, skeptical reporter, Cummings dug deeper. “I read the deeds,” he insisted, “and they didn’t say anything about owning only minerals under the soil. And I just speculated that if there was more than a thousand acres [in a lot], there was a lot more that you could do besides cut trees on it. You could camp on it, you could walk on it, you could hike on it, do all kinds of things on that soil. And that was the basis of my first story.”

For the first time that anybody could remember Maine’s Public Reserved Lands were attracting serious attention in the press. The story made headlines not just on that Sunday, but for nine years after that, at times almost weekly. He might not have foreseen it at the time, but Bob Cummings had launched the largest land conservation effort Maine had ever seen. As a result of his article, the lands that the state would ultimately reclaim added up to twice the acreage Governor Percival Baxter bought up around Mount Katahdin to create the iconic Baxter State Park.