Mike Seminara, Matt Dicecca and Jamison Bastarache (from right) eat lunch at Four Seasons Restaurant & Lounge while hunting in Jackman on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

JACKMAN, Maine — Hal Blood’s introduction to Maine’s North Woods started with family fishing trips and vacations during deer hunting season. Thirty years ago, he left a career as a lobsterman in Harpswell and moved to Jackman to stop vacationing there and start living there.

Blood, now a 64-year-old master guide who runs Big Woods Outfitters, said he felt at home in the vastness and quiet. While it overwhelms some, most of his clients seek the same thing — a unique experience that is also accessible for many visitors within a day’s drive.

A logging truck heads north on U.S. Route 201 toward Jackman on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. The campaign over the Central Maine Power Co. corridor is the latest to put the historic role of the Maine woods at the forefront of public dialogue. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“It really isn’t a true wilderness because there are roads all through it. It’s a big industrial forest,” he said. “But for them, it’s still a massive, big amount of woods they are not going to see anywhere else.”

Maine is the most forested state in the country. While 91 percent of those trees are privately owned, many landowners grant access to the forests, making them a broad economic driver. These rural, remote corners are central to the identity of the people who live in them, are symbolic for those who live slightly farther away and a draw for many others.

The character of those woods is at the center of the referendum on Central Maine Power Co.’s hydropower corridor, which Mainers will vote on this Tuesday. The 53-mile stretch of new clearing needed to complete the 145-mile route has been portrayed as a scar on the land by project opponents. Supporters point to its long working history and economic benefits.

Attean Pond seen from the Attean View Rest Stop on Rt. 201 in Jackman. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The argument over Question 1, which aims to block the $1 billion corridor, is the latest one drawing on people’s emotional attachment to the nature of the woods and their perception of it as a remote wilderness, dividing communities and environmentalists as energy companies duke it out on the airwaves for dominance of New England’s electric grid.

It has echoes of another battle over Maine’s forests. In 1996, two competing referendums from environmentalists and the forest products industry aimed to determine how clear-cutting could occur in the North Woods, a stretch of 3.5 million acres.

It was a high-stakes fight. Then-Gov. Angus King once called the environmentalists’ question a “gun to the head of the Maine economy.” Environmentalists said it would heal a forest abused by industry for years. Neither option received the 50 percent of votes needed to be approved and the industry-backed question was again defeated on the 1997 ballot.

That debate made forestry terms like “clear-cut” into household phrases, said Robert Sanford, who heads the University of Southern Maine’s environmental science and policy department and sits on Maine’s environmental protection board.

Like the CMP corridor race, it prompted a debate about the economy and how changing the woods would change Maine’s identity. That connection to the land is built into the romanticism of the wilderness from colonial times that gives it value to people across the state, Sanford said.

A view of Moxie Pond where the top of the first pole raised in Central Maine Power’s hydro power corridor project can be seen above the trees on the right. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“The number one value of wilderness is simply knowing that it’s there,” he said.

Corridor opponents have characterized the area around the corridor as being “pristine.” But while the area surrounding Moxie Lake — where the first pole CMP raised is just visible above the treeline — is thickly forested, many of the trees are young. Further along the route, old logging roads criss-cross Enchanted Mountain Road in the shadow of Johnson Mountain.

Those markers speak to how the land has been used for decades for decades; a New England Clean Energy Connect spokesperson said the majority of land used to build the corridor already belonged to CMP, but much of the land north of the Kennebec River was purchased from some of Maine’s dominant landowners.

Those uses are embedded in Maine’s economy and history. In 2019, the forest product industry made up 4 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, according to a September study from the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. That same year, the outdoor recreation industry made up just over 4 percent of GDP, federal data show.

The Maine woods are now becoming crucial to the carbon offsetting industry, where landowners are paid by big companies to grow trees that balance their own emissions, said Eric Kingsley, the northeast region consultant for the Forest Resources Association. In the North Woods, those landowners make it possible for the public to access the land for a low fee.

A logging road that connects to Enchanted Mountain Road off Rt. 201 near Jackman. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“It’s understood that the trucks have the right-of-way and that this is a working forest,” he said.

Even if it is not untouched wilderness, managing the woods’ appearance to be so is crucial to the Maine Forest Service’s forest management plan. The state encourages private landowners to minimize the visual elements of their particular land uses to lessen any negative connotations the public might have about the land use, especially where the public interacts with it.

That quality of life drives Massachusetts residents Mike Semunara, Matt Dicecca and Jameson Bastarache to travel 4 1/2 hours at least once a year to hunt grouse in Jackman, a town where they could leave civilization just a few miles into the woods in the morning on Friday, come back for lunch at the Four Seasons Restaurant & Lounge and head back out until dark.

The logging roads do not detract from the wildness of the woods, but are part of what makes them accessible, Bastarache said.

“You can go a long time without seeing any people,” he said.

David Jones, the owner of Jackman Powersports, relies on people like Bastarache and their love of the woods. He sells ATVs and snowmobiles with 50 percent of his business “from away.”  Many visitors start coming to the region as are children and forge a lifelong relationship with it.

“Now they’ve seen it, they’re not going to be able to go back to life before it,” he said.