After 39 years as the director of the North Maine Woods, Al Cowperthwaite will retire at the end of this month with a legacy of maintaining alliances between outdoor enthusiasts and the forest companies that own much of the land.
North Maine Woods Inc. was created in 1971, becoming a nonprofit a decade later. It manages access and recreational opportunities to 3.5 million acres of wild forestland in northwest Maine, making certain that the forest-products companies are able to log their land without interference.
The area, which accounts for 16 percent of the state’s geography, is a veritable playground to fishermen, hunters, hikers and campers that is teeming with moose, deer, grouse, black bear, native brook trout, and a suite of boreal songbirds.
To many of the guides, sportsmen, snowmobilers and sporting camp owners who travel the hundreds of miles of logging roads in the North Maine Woods for work, that access is no small privilege, and a credit to Cowperthwaite.
“Guides are type-A personalities. Then you have to deal with landowners. That middle man has got to be someone like Al. He is a calm voice for everyone,” said Matt Libby Sr., who worked as the fourth-generation owner of Libby Camps with his wife, Ellen, from 1977 to 2013.
The dirt logging roads in the North Maine Woods once were gated and locked to keep the public out. Up until the mid-1980s there even were gates preventing access to the Allagash River Waterway corridor – a federal wild and scenic river.
Today, roughly 70,000 people come through the gates each year to fish, hunt, canoe, camp, and snowmobile – for a gate fee of just $11 a day for Maine residents and $16 for non-residents. And there are roughly 700 privately owned camps on land in the North Maine Woods.
Many credit Cowperthwaite’s steady, longstanding leadership for the continuation of this rare tradition where private land is enjoyed by so many.
“The non-resident people we run into, they recognize it because they come from states or regions where private land is typically closed to public use,” said Maine Fisheries Biologist Frank Frost, who has worked in the region for 25 years. “Other states have a lot of public land or federal or state land. Maine is mostly private land. The North Maine Woods is almost entirely private, yet it’s open to public use. I don’t know if the local public understands that.”
Others said the amicable relationship that exists today between working forest companies and recreational users wasn’t there from the start. And for the past 50 years forestland in northern Maine has changed hands several times, bringing new landowners to the table and into the longstanding agreement over land access.
In 1991, when disagreements spiked, Cowperthwaite helped create the Sportsman’s-Forest Landowner Alliance that represented the outdoor sporting public and the forest companies. Cowperthwaite served as its chairman from 1993 to 2016 to help keep Maine’s private northern woodland open for public use. To this day it’s considered unique in the United States.
“Basically, all the landowners and all the sporting groups get in a room and air our problems. It’s sometimes uncomfortable,” said Don Kleiner, a Maine guide of 40 years and the executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association. “Al Cowperthwaite promoted that organization and kept it alive, and kept that conversation at the level of utter frankness with the result that we could resolve issues. It’s a tremendous legacy.”
Weyerhaeuser owns 834,000 acres of working forest land in Maine, all of which is outside the North Maine Woods. But Christopher Fife, Weyerhaeuser’s public affairs manager in the Northeast, said the Sportsman’s-Forest Landowner Alliance has been a model for collaboration in the working forest.
Other forest industry officials agree.
“What it comes down to is a history of trust that Al’s built up. He’s the conduit that has made this whole thing work,” said Ben Carlisle, president of Bangor-based Prentiss & Carlisle, which has been part of the North Maine Woods since its inception.
In all, Cowperthwaite has worked for North Maine Woods for 45 years, and he’s seen many changes.
In the 1970s, 35 percent of the visitors to the North Maine Woods were deer hunters. Today they barely account for 5 percent, as the northern deer herd has dwindled. On the other hand, moose hunting was only reintroduced in Maine in 1981 with 700 permits; today it accounts for around 3,000 hunting parties who enter the woods in the fall. And commercial bear hunts barely existed in the 1970s, but today make up 20 percent of the traffic in the North Maine Woods.
The changes in the North Maine Woods have been so constant, Cowperthwaite was asked in 2000 to testify before the Congressional House Committee on Forests and Forest Health about the example the North Maine Woods offered as a place where private forestland is open to the public.
“I testified on how we were able to keep the land open without problems – with a full-time staff of four. Three-and-a half million acres managed by four people. And we didn’t have any public-use problems,” said Cowperthwaite, 67, with a soft chuckle.
As a Houlton native who grew up hunting and fishing at the camp his father built in Monticello in the 1930s, Cowperthwaite knew since high school he wanted to work in the woods.
After he graduated from the University of Maine in 1976 with a major in parks management, he was hired by the North Maine Woods to inventory all recreational structures in the working forestland. He traded his Volkswagen station wagon for a friend’s Toyota Land Cruiser and outfitted it with a Coleman stove, cooler, sleeping bag, and a canoe on top. From June to November, he lived in the woods and traveled the nearly 3 million acres, coming out only once a week to resupply.
“I met most of the foresters. I got to know everyone and everyone got to know me. It was perfect for a young man. I’d park my rig on a hill, throw my motor in the canoe and go fishing. And I got my foot in the door as director,” Cowperthwaite said.
Forty-five years later, his signature hard-working, personal approach is still valued among sporting camp owners, guides and foresters. Libby said Cowperthwaite always stayed “true to the plan,” which was to keep Maine’s forestland open for recreation.
“I’ve been told the North Maine Woods could make a tremendous amount of money leasing acreage to sportsmen to have exclusive hunting rights. I was told I could make a lot of money doing that,” Cowperthwaite said. “That was 20 years ago. I said, ‘Yeah, we could make money – but that’s not for Maine.’”