OVER THE NORTH WOODS OF MAINE — From high above, the vast expanse of spruce, fir, birch, and maples covering nearly half of Maine seems endless, a rolling carpet of varying shades of green that appears to be entirely untouched by development.
But all is not quite as it seems. In the valleys between the mountains, and along the banks of the region’s many lakes, there are narrow roads, isolated homes, and other signs of civilization, almost invisible from the air.
Many here now fear these subtle human incursions could soon become far more obvious, damaging — and indelible.
A state rule change that took effect this summer could open as much as 1 million acres of the North Woods and Maine’s other unincorporated territories to new development. The consequences, they say, will be wilds that are less wild, increased carbon emissions, a loss of animal life — especially defining species such as moose and bears — and the fragmentation of the largest forested area east of the Mississippi River, which stretches from New Hampshire through New Brunswick.
“It will be death by a thousand cuts, a gradual erosion,” said Alec Giffen, a senior adviser to the New England Forestry Foundation, as he flew in a small plane above the North Woods and pointed out patches of development. “My fear is that it will be like boiling a frog. People won’t realize what they’ve lost until it’s gone.”
At issue is the so-called adjacency rule, which has been the guiding principle of development in the state’s 10 million acres of unorganized territories since the 1970s. The rule prohibited the construction of residential subdivisions or commercial development, such as stores and gas stations, beyond 1 mile, along a road, from existing development. Any new building had to be of a “similar type, use, occupancy, scale, or intensity,” as the previous development.
The goal was to cluster construction near existing developed areas and to restrain new development schemes. It was rigid, but it worked, with only about 1 percent of the unorganized territories having been developed, environmental advocates say.
The new rule, which took effect in June with the support of Governor Janet Mills, eliminated the requirement for similar types of development and allows new commercial, industrial, and residential buildings to be erected up to 7 miles from the boundaries of existing towns. Moreover, it could allow new development along some 80 miles of state or federally designated scenic byways and many of the 1,100 lakes throughout the region.
The new regime was long overdue and came at the request of landowners, outdoor recreational business owners, and communities in the region seeking more tax revenue to support municipal services, state officials said.
“I can understand the concerns, but what we’ve done makes the situation better,” said Samantha Horn, acting executive director of the state’s Land Use Planning Commission, which approved the changes to the adjacency rule.
Supporters reject the notion the new rule will lead to a surge in development. Even though it may make building easier in some areas, the restrictions remain onerous and still encourage building near existing towns, with their public safety and other services, they say.
This could combat what is already a significant problem in parts of the state where the limits on development under the old rule left some communities contending with sprawling jurisdictions, where homes and businesses are scattered.
In Jackman, where some 900 people live near the Canadian border, the town now has to provide fire and ambulance services to a territory the size of Rhode Island, said Victoria Forkus, the town manager.
“We see the new rule as helping to centralize development and combating sprawl,” she said. “It’s very difficult now to reach people with emergencies.”
In an interview after a recent hearing of the land use commission in Brewer, Horn and other state officials said the changes are rooted in how the woods are being used, with more visitors coming to mountain bike and hike with their kids, rather than to hunt and fish.
The change was also needed because the old rule encouraged developers to leapfrog, building one home or industrial facility a mile away, and then another a mile from there, until development had spread throughout the woods.
“We felt like it was time for an update,” Horn said.
For some environmental activists, who note that the vast majority of public comments sent to the commission opposed the rule change, it feels more like time to panic.
“Together, these threats constitute a major assault on the undeveloped character of the North Woods,” said Cathy Johnson, a senior staff attorney and forests and wildlife project director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “My concern is that we’re just going to see more development creeping into the unorganized territories.”
The changes in development rules are one of a number of recent threats to the state’s forests, she and others said. A plan to deliver Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts via new transmission lines would carve a wide path through more than 50 miles of North Woods. And this month, Maine’s largest landowner, Canada-based JD Irving, received permission to rezone 51,000 acres around four lakes near the Canadian border for residential and commercial development.
For some environmental advocates, the current amount of development is already a problem.
Jeff Reardon, a project director of the Maine Council of Trout Unlimited, said development around old mill towns such as Millinocket, Greenville, and Ashland has already led to a significant loss of brook trout in the area’s lakes.
Flying over the western edge of the North Woods on a recent afternoon, Bryan Wentzell steered his small plane over a high ridge of the Appalachian Trail and pointed to the endless horizon of trees and lakes.
The state’s new development rules for the region, he worries, will break up the vast uninterrupted stretch of forest and make it more difficult for moose, lynx, spruce grouse, and other native species to thrive.
Wentzell, executive director of the Maine Mountain Collaborative, also worries that more development will increase pollution.
“Just a 1 percent loss of the forest would be the amount of carbon produced in a year by the state,” he said. “That wouldn’t be good.”