A proposed development at the gateway to Maine's North Woods envisions nearly 1,000 house lots, two resorts, three recreational vehicle parks, a golf course and a marina. It would be the state's biggest such project ever -- and opponents and supporters alike say its impacts would be equally colossal.
Local officials hail the Plum Creek Timber Co. plan in the Moosehead Lake region as a potential shot in the arm for a part of Maine bypassed by the economic growth. Towns near the North Woods have been losing population for years, leaving schools and hospitals to struggle.
Many businesses like what they see, too, and discount critics' fears.
Seated at a table at the Kokadjo Trading Post on a recent picture-perfect day, owner Fred Candeloro looked out the window toward the western end of First Roach Pond -- where an earlier and far smaller Plum Creek development plan is already unfolding -- and began taking count.
"How many boats do you see out there? None! How many fishermen out there? None!" said Candeloro, his voice booming with emotion. "Where's this overdevelopment they're talking about?"
Others, however, say the latest development plan would forever change the region's last great wilderness.
Five miles from the trading post, inside the rustic 1950s-era camp that she and her husband bought 20 years ago, Joan Wisher lamented the disappearance of the owls that used to lull her to sleep.
Their nests, the retired Massachusetts state trooper claimed, fell victim to construction crews who cut down trees and built roads to develop 89 building lots on and near the pond.
She suggests the Plum Creek Timber Co. project is responsible for everything from a worrisome foam on First Roach to noisy Jet Skis zooming across the waters.
The emotionally charged battle over development in the Moosehead Lake region has spread as Plum Creek presses ahead with its development and conservation plan for 426,000 of its nearly 1 million acres in Maine. Vandals have twice defaced Plum Creek offices in Maine.
To hikers, sportsmen and naturalists, Moosehead points the way into Maine's North Woods, one of the most hallowed areas in the Northeast. Explored 150 years ago by Henry David Thoreau, it is a key part of a vast expanse of forest teeming with moose, deer and bear, and dotted with trout ponds and streams.
Under Plum Creek's plan, 417,000 acres -- or 98 percent of the total -- would be protected from development for 30 years. There would be easements on 125 miles of hiking and snowmobile trails and permanent conservation of 180 miles of undeveloped shoreline.
The fate of the plan rests with a panel of private citizens, the Land Use Regulation Commission, which serves as the zoning board for the state's 10.5 million acres of unorganized territory, most of it in the forested and thinly populated north.
The panel, known as LURC, is in the early stages of what is expected to be a year-long review of Plum Creek's 570-page application.
To its supporters, the project is a thoughtful blend of conservation and development, one that preserves the region's longtime custom of allowing public access to private timberlands for fishing, hunting, hiking and snowmobiling.
"This is good for Maine because it's maintaining Maine traditions," said Jim Lehner, Plum Creek's regional general manager. Those traditions include a working forest and open access to hunters, fishermen and others.
Environmental groups, however, have denounced the Plum Creek project, saying it opens the door for wilderness sprawl that threatens to change the character of an area they regard as the heart and soul of Maine. They worry that although development would be permanent, the conservation provisions would last for only 30 years.
Catherine B. Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine likes to display a satellite photo taken at night of the eastern half of the country.
The large patch of total darkness that makes up the North Woods poses a sharp contrast to the illuminated areas that surround it.
"That, in a nutshell, is the easiest way to explain to people why this is a national issue," Johnson said. "It's the largest undeveloped block of land east of the Mississippi, and it has national significance."
Some opponents have an alternate vision, hoping to make it a part of a North Woods national park. That proposal has stirred strong feelings but remains stalled in the face of opposition from political leaders and many residents of the region.
Plum Creek plans to develop groupings of house lots along already-developed waters such as Moosehead and Brassua lakes in much the same way it sited the 89 lots on First Roach Pond. And if the experience there is any measure, it is a good bet that there would be no scarcity of buyers.
The First Roach lots, which went on the market for $60,000 to $100,000, have soared in value, according to real estate agent Dave Vaughn. He said the response by buyers underscores a hunger for vacation properties in a wilderness setting six hours by car from Boston.
A boat ride down the length of the pond highlights the contrast between the new, clustered properties and older camps such as Wisher's that were built over the years in a scattershot manner. The older cottages, set close to the water and in some cases surrounded by lawns, would be banned under today's more stringent standards that require 200 feet of frontage, a 100-foot setback and a forest canopy along the shore.
Candeloro welcomes Plum Creek as a good neighbor and said its planned development is preferable to the hodgepodge methods of the past.
Conservation provisions included in the First Roach project, he said, ensure that the awe-inspiring scenery he sees from his store will remain.
"With the concept plan, that stays," he said, pointing to the clear water, verdant forest and mountains in the distance. "That view is going to be here forever."
But Wisher said Plum Creek's development has led to a threefold increase in motor vehicle traffic. And she wonders how long the moose and eagles that frequent the lake will stick around once all the lots are filled with homes. She said the Plum Creek project now before LURC could place an RV park nearby, adding to the pressure on the area.
"It's lost its magic," she said. "What we have here is a treasure, a wilderness treasure. . . . But if we let suburban sprawl come all the way up here, nobody will have a place like this ever again."