Clouds from a light snowfall shroud the peaks of the Bigelow Mountain Range, which reigns over western Maine forest trails, luring snowshoers and cross-country skiers on a winter afternoon.
Maine, which is bigger than Austria, has a vast backcountry backyard that offers outdoors lovers 3.3 million acres (1.34 million hectares) set aside from development in recent years, nearly 18 percent of the entire state. Not everyone is thrilled about the conservation — foes say it takes lands off tax rolls and restricts use of snowmobiles — but others revel in the unspoiled playland.
The mountains are pale blue backdrops to shimmering, pristine lakes. Forests of poplar, birch and fir form an almost unbroken canopy from the highlands more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the Down East marshlands.
Snowmobilers take to their trails, and ice fishermen find their best spots. When the weather's warmer, hikers, kayakers, mountain bikers, campers and hunters enjoy the land, lakes and rivers within. It's theirs to use, and it's getting bigger.
For generations, Maine residents and visitors took for granted their access to this land as guests of the paper companies and other big landowners who allowed recreational use. But that long-standing tradition was threatened as the land was sold, broken into smaller parcels and taken over by developers.
Development inspired the creation in the late 1980s of the Land for Maine's Future program for buying and preserving those long-cherished open spaces. The lands set aside, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, now include state and national parks, public lots and preserves like the one surrounding the majestic Bigelow and privately owned areas protected by easements. The land was either bought outright by the state and private conservation groups or public access was granted by landowners who, in many cases, continue their traditional logging enterprises.
Outdoors lover Chris Jordan is delighted with the backcountry access.
"We need more places where people can go outside and do things," Jordan, of Massachusetts said after a morning of snowshoeing along winding mountain trails. "People need to get access to the backcountry."
If he's not running his insurance brokerage back home, Jordan, who's in his 40s, is probably in Maine's wildlands. He and his wife canoed the Allagash River two years ago. They snowshoe and climb mountains, like thousands of others who find the North Woods alluring.
Surveys have repeatedly shown strong support among Maine residents for open-space preservation, and voters have approved bond issues to continue public purchases. But there is strong sentiment against the trend, especially in the northern part of the state.
A leading critic, Republican state Rep. Henry Joy, said rural Maine residents have long considered "a way of life" their access to the huge open lands, including those owned by private individuals or companies. Now, with the acquisitions and set-asides, there are more restrictions, like those against using all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, Joy said.
What's more, he said, the conservation efforts take some land off tax rolls entirely, putting more financial pressure on residents of the lightly populated unincorporated towns known collectively as the Unorganized Territory.
But some conservationists envision going even further: creation of a sprawling national preserve encompassing the region, an idea they say is rooted in the dreams of author and poet Henry David Thoreau, who roamed the region a century and a half ago.
While the idea of a national park with gates, rangers and picnic tables is far from reality, the amount of land that's been set aside for public recreational use has been quietly tripled in recent years.
As of 2003, about 6 percent of Maine's total acreage was set aside from development. The protected acreage now totals just shy of 18 percent with the most recent transactions, according to the state Department of Conservation. Maine is still behind its neighboring states in percentage of conserved lands. New Hampshire, with its White Mountains National Forest, sets aside 30 percent of its land, though the total acreage is far less than Maine's. About 22 percent of Vermont land is conserved.
Outdoors enthusiasts and the outfitters and other businesses that cater to them are excited about Maine's efforts.
Anglers, snowshoers, cross-country skiers and those who just enjoy nature have been flocking to West Branch Pond Camps in the recently preserved Roach Ponds area east of Moosehead Lake, owner-operator Eric Stirling said. Word of the Roach Ponds purchase, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Augusta, prompted customers to make reservations months in advance.
"It's really been fantastic for my business," Stirling said.
Business is up 20 percent since the Roach Ponds purchase was finalized in 2009, he said.
Maine state policy embraces efforts to protect natural landscapes that may be lost to development — an objective that's taken creativity in a state that's 95 percent privately owned, said Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan, who has worked on preservation since the 1980s, when he was a state legislator.
One recent purchase covers 29,000 acres (11,700 hectares) of wildnerss in the Roach Ponds area by the Appalachian Mountain Club. The acquisition fulfills conservationists' hopes of linking the Moosehead region, marked by the state's largest lake, with northern Maine's Baxter State Park, a spectacular preserve that grew from a former governor's land purchases and subsequent donations to the state.
Another gem is the addition to Baxter State Park of 4,000 scenic acres (1,600 hectares) that include the sparkling Katahdin Lake, silhouetted by Maine's tallest peak, accomplished through a deal with a private logging company.