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Hikers familiar with the eight relatively luxurious huts along the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains of New Hampshire know that at the end of a long day’s trek they can expect, if they booked ahead, a warm meal and a clean bunkhouse in which to throw down a sleeping bag.
The first of these High Huts, as they’re called, was opened by the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1888, and the final one was completed in 1964. Since then, AMC has not brought this model to other areas, which allows people to explore the outdoors without foregoing material comforts, like a dry bed and chicken Parmesan. Until recently.
AMC’s effort, started eight years ago, to bring that level of comfort to hikers in Maine is gathering steam. The company has purchased 66,000 acres in northern Maine and created 50 miles of trails, new campsites and bought three rustic sporting camps. In January, it finished a major renovation of one of those lodges. Called the Maine Woods Initiative, the $52 million project is AMC’s attempt to once again create a recreational destination to lure people outside. At the same time, the club saw a chance to inject some life into the Moosehead Lake region’s hardscrabble economy.
“The whole idea was to create another recreational system,” says Walter Graff, senior vice president of the AMC. “And AMC is a land-conservation and advocacy group …but we’re not just advocating for land preservation, but also for economic development. We want to make the health of the community a big part of what this project is. We don’t want to buy land to lock it up.”
But the region’s shifting economy and evolving land use, from industrial logging to tourism, has not pleased everyone. Bob Meyers, the executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, says snowmobilers lost 30 miles of trails because of the AMC project, which AMC disputes. Meyers says this was a blow to his sport, also a significant driver of winter economic activity in the area. Snowmobilers contribute $350 million to Maine a year, he says.
“And we weren’t the only ones that lost use,” Meyers says. “Guides who guided hunts in there lost use, because they restricted hunting activity. It was a significant loss for the whole area, and the objection for us is they are using government funds to subsidize it.”
Graff says hunting is allowed throughout the property, although the AMC did shut down some bear-baiting sites. And of the $48 million the AMC has raised so far to finance the Maine Woods Initiative, about $6 million came from federal and state funds, including the federal Forest Legacy program and Land for Maine’s Future, Graff explains. The rest has been raised through private philanthropy.
While the AMC did limit snowmobilers to some extent, the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, Bob Hamer, points out the area now also attracts bird watchers, fly fishermen, cross-country skiers, paddlers, waterfall fans, mountain bikers and hikers, many of whom are new types of tourists for the region. “Everything that they do that will attract a new customer helps this area,” he says. “The more we redefine ourselves, and find these niche areas, the better off we are.”
In 2003, AMC bought 37,000 acres from International Paper Co. as the paper company shed its land holdings, then an additional 29,000 acres from Plum Creek Timber Co. in 2009. All of the land is in an area called the 100-mile Wilderness, a lonesome stretch between Baxter State Park and Monson with a reputation as the last, wildest section of the Appalachian Trail. These days it sounds a bit tamer.
People can ski groomed trails from AMC’s Medawisla Wilderness Lodge on Second Roach Pond to the privately owned West Branch Pond Camps. From there they can glide to Little Lyford Lodge on Lyford Pond and farther on to Gorman Chairback Lodge on Long Pond, a total span of between 37 and 43 miles. AMC staff can also transport guests’ sleeping bags and luggage between huts.
The AMC tallied 800 overnight guests its first year in 2003, after it acquired Little Lyford Lodge, according to AMC’s chief financial officer, Bruce Glabe. This year, Glabe says AMC is projecting a total of 4,700 overnight guests among its three camps. (This project is not connected to the Maine Huts and Trails system in the mountains of western Maine.)
Of its 66,000 acres, AMC will have put 20,000 acres into ecological reserves by the end of 2011, some of which once included snowmobile trails that are now closed. The remainder of the land will be harvested for lumber. AMC hired Huber Resources Corp. of Old Town to establish a long-term forestry management plan, and Graff says AMC’s intention is not just to create another revenue stream, but also to “bring back the natural character of the forest.”
“We won’t do plantation forestry, but rather selective forestry over time,” Graff says. “We think the forest will have a more natural character in 50 years than when we acquired it,” with mixed hardwoods, spruce and fir. He says AMC’s timber operations net $150,000 to $200,000 a year after timberland taxes. AMC also pays meals, lodging and property taxes, according to Graff.
AMC turns to the nearby commercial hub in Greenville to buy much of its materials, equipment and food, and to find some its work force, Graff says. AMC employs 11 full-time staff, all of whom live locally, to manage the land and lodges. In the summer and winter, it hires an additional 25 seasonal staff — a mix of locals and college students — for extra lodge help and trail and road maintenance. One mile of new trail costs $10,000 to build, Graff adds.
John Simko, Greenville’s town manager until a few months ago, applauds AMC’s work. Over the past year, AMC hired up to 30 local tradesmen to work on Gorman Chairback lodge, a $2 million renovation. “That won a lot of favors, especially in this economy, with contractors,” Simko says. Next year, Graff says AMC plans to upgrade its Medawisla camp for $1 million to $2 million and build up the trail network. The goal is to add 10 miles of trail a year to reach 100 miles by 2016, according to Glabe.
Mike Boutin, the owner of Northwoods Outfitters in Greenville, says his 17-year-old store and guiding service has seen a jump in activity from AMC guests and employees. His is the last outpost before guests head into the woods, and AMC often invites its tour members to convene in Boutin’s parking lot. “It is great to have that traffic,” he says. “The AMC makes a concerted effort to support local businesses.” AMC guests also often stay in Greenville before or after their trip, Boutin adds, booking rooms at one of the handful of local hotels and inns.
Eric Stirling, owner of West Branch Pond Camps, part of the AMC’s wilderness lodge network, says his business has grown by at least 25% since AMC arrived eight years ago. His lodge, which has been in his family for four generations, grosses $120,000 to $150,000 a year, but he can piggyback on AMC’s “marketing machine.”
His business also benefits from the land AMC preserved around his 30 acres, allowing him to develop walking trails without worrying about future development. “It has enhanced the quality of the folks’ experience coming to the camps,” he says.
The Appalachian Mountain Club is a 135-year-old nonprofit based in Boston with a mission to protect the Appalachian region. Its annual operating budget is about $20 million and its total assets in 2009 equaled roughly $111 million, according to the latest available tax documents.
AMC bought its 100 square miles in northern Maine for $25.5 million. Graff says the annual operating budget of the Maine Woods Initiative comes to $1.7 million. The goal is to have the project become financially self-sustaining by 2016, supported by lumber sales, guest fees and endowment interest. AMC’s $52 million capital campaign to pay for the project will include $9 million for an endowment, Graff says.
To push the deal forward, AMC tapped New Market Tax Credits, a federal program established in 2000 to help revitalize impoverished communities. The club received credits for $31 million of the project’s cost, spurring investment through reduced borrowing rates, according to Graff.
Meyers, of the snowmobile club, says he objects to the use of government funds to support the Maine Woods Initiative. “Basically it is a government-subsidized resort, a faux wilderness,” he says.
While some locals see a changing landscape they fear will not support their way of life, others see the changes ushered in by the AMC as a boon. “The main impact on the community, number one, is the exposure,” Hamer says. “The majority of people who come to do that [trail] system, they come through the town of Greenville, and for many, it is their first introduction to the woods of Maine. I know from talking to ... lodging businesses in the area that a lot of people have returned. It’s a great introduction to the area.”
Rebecca Goldfine, Mainebiz staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com.