Guess Who Is No Longer Coming to the North Woods?

Let’s see if you can guess which activities in Maine’s north woods have increased in popularity in the past 14 years and which have decreased, from the following list: deer hunting, bear hunting, moose hunting, grouse hunting, fishing, canoeing, and camping.

North Maine Woods manages access and use on 3.5 million acres for about three dozen landowners. For the past 14 years, since NMW expanded its management to the former Great Northern Paper Company lands in the West Branch Region, the organization has tracked the number of visitors and what those visitors were doing in the north woods.

From 2.5 million acres in 1976 to 3.5 million today, North Maine Woods has been our playground, an amazing well-managed, beautiful, and accessible (for a very reasonable fee) area that drives the regional economy from forest products to guiding. The area holds some of Maine’s most historic and famous sporting camps.

In a thriving outdoor economy, this region would be booming. Instead, despite some outstanding resources and recreational opportunities, the outdoor industry is in real trouble here.

So, which outdoor activities have increased over the last 14 years, and which have decreased?

Let’s start with the good news. Visitor days by grouse hunters have increased from 13,554 to 21,663. At its lowest point in this period, 2005, visitor numbers dropped to 10,983, but it’s been a steady increase since that year. I grouse hunted in that region last fall and can attest to the claim that it might have been the best ever for grouse. I expect that NMW’s grouse hunting numbers are very dependent on the grouse population.

Visitor days by moose hunters have almost doubled, from 5,740 to 10,201, driven primarily (I guess) by DIF&W’s increases in moose permits. The low point in that period was 2005 when the region saw just 2,943 visitor days by moose hunters.

Visitor days by bear hunters have increased from 4,034 to 5,634. But unfortunately, despite what may be a record high population of black bears, bear hunters spent 31 percent less days in the region than they did at the peak in 2003 when those seeking this extraordinary game animal enjoyed 8,222 visitor days.

In the words of Al Cowperthwaite, the outstanding and highly-respected manager of North Maine Woods, “We have a healthy bear population and could use some additional publicity to attract hunters.” Indeed!

So, where have the declines in visitor days come? From some surprising places. Think eco-tourism.

Visitors days by canoeists have steadily declined from 23,850 in 1999 to a shockingly low 4,755 in 2012. Given that this region includes the storied Allagash, this is hard to believe. I remember the bitter battle over attempts by some interests to reduce access to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Turns out they had nothing to worry about. While access remains at most of the traditional places, visitors have abandoned the AWW in droves.

In 2006 North Maine Woods changed the way they record data for AWW visitors. Rather than recoding use for each day visitors are on the AWW, they now record only the days visitors travel to and from the AWW.  Nevertheless, while the number of visitors has been stable the last ten years, a lot fewer people are visiting the AWW these days than visited in the 1980s.

Visitor days by campers have gone from 49,564 to 20,782. And even visits by those who own camps in that region have decreased from 86,955 to 57,541.

Perhaps most surprising to this avid brook trout fisherman, visitor days by anglers has dropped by almost 50 percent! In 1999 anglers spent 32,554 days fishing in this region. By 2012 that number had decreased to 17,265. I won’t even begin to speculate why this has happened. But it definitely needs attention if we are to have a sustainable outdoor economy in the north woods.

Not surprising, visitor days by deer hunters has plunged from 28,095 to only 4,895. Although the decline has been steady throughout the 14 years, it has dropped most sharply from 17,631 in 2006 to the 4,895 last year. Obviously no deer equals no deer hunters.

Al Cowperthwaite told me, “This is pretty raw data which is interesting but I caution using it to come to any conclusions.”

So I will leave those to you!

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.