In 2009, a group of outdoor recreation businesses came together at a retreat at Saddleback Mountain sponsored by the Maine Woods Consortium to consider how best to grow nature-based tourism in the Maine woods, hoping to expand greater awareness of the north woods as a tourism destination. Originally, the network intended to focus on creating tourism packages that would highlight multiple partners working together in a particular region, e.g., partners would coordinate marketing efforts and create packages w/ other local businesses that could draw vacationers to a particular area. Over time, the partners have developed tourism destination packages and itineraries among themselves as well as with local partners that provide a total outdoor experience for the traveler.
WHO IS INVOLVED
Several businesses in the tourism sector in Maine are part of the network: the Appalachian Mountain Club, Maine Huts and trails, the New England Outdoor Center, Northern Outdoors, Sunday River Ski Resort, and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Other partners in the network are also important: PlaceWorks Consulting and the Maine Woods Consortium. In addition, the Maine Office of Tourism has provided support and advice as the partners have developed ways to work together.
HOW THEY WORK TOGETHER
The members of the Network are self-selected; there is no formal process of entry into the Network. Although members are both collaborators and competitors, the glue that holds the Network together is trust. There is strong interest in expanding the membership and partners are working together to figure out how best to do this.
One year ago, Bryan Wentzell, Policy Director for the Appalachian Mountain Club, stepped in to coordinate the efforts of the Network. Up until that time PlaceWorks Consulting had been providing coordination and website maintenance through a small grant.
The members talk every few months, mostly through conference calls and emails. The meetings focus seasonally on developing tourist packages in a cooperative way. A prior package included a cooperative venture between the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and Maine Huts & Trails that allowed vacationers to hike through the woods, then go out on a pontoon boat on Flagstaff Lake where a tour guide would explain the history of the lake; the end of the trip included a stay in a hut close by the lake. Another package entitled “Chicks with Sticks” brought together vacationers for a knitting and skiing weekend.
Bryan and Sara Hunt from the New England Outdoor Center maintain the blog posts on the website, and partners continue to search for ways to maintain funding and momentum around the website, blog, and Facebook page.
The future of the Network is still undecided. Members conferred this past March and decided to try another season of working together. As of yet, there is still no good way of tracking how many packages can be attributed to MWD, so the tangible business benefit to members is unclear. The Network website, blog, and Facebook page are in place, but how much these sites are driving traffic to the websites of individual partners has not been determined. Members feel they are at a critical crossroads, trying to determine what is working, what is not, and what it would take to make the Network thrive.
PROGRESS TOWARDS GOAL
The Maine Woods Discovery Network is made up a group of core industry leaders who have developed trust among themselves and who are committed to expanding nature-based tourism. The Network sponsored cooperative vacation packages for 2010, 2011, and the winter of 2012 packages, with plans for summer 2012 in development. Over the next few months, the Maine Woods Consortium is again sponsoring a retreat focused on supporting nature-based tourism in the Maine woods. Participants will consider developing a certification process for high quality tourism businesses. Could the Maine Woods Discovery Network be the avenue for this certification? Would partners be interested in expanding their mission and totally rethinking the Network’s purpose?
The Maine Woods Discovery Network knows that Maine offers something to tourists that no other state in the east can: ten million acres of lakes, mountains, and forest that is still mostly wild. Many visitors coming to Maine see only lobsters and lighthouses; only a small percentage of the state’s visitors get to the north woods. The members of the Maine Woods Discovery Network are focused on adding the Maine woods to the list of natural resources that draw vacationers from all over the world to our state.
The story of the Mahoosuc Initiative had its beginnings in 2004-2005, when the conservation community across Maine was focused on opportunities in the Downeast region, as well as, controversies around development in the Moosehead Lake area. While attention was being paid to conservation issues in other areas of Maine, few people were talking about the western mountains. Discussions in local communities began about the large area of land in the Mahoosuc region. Just fifteen years ago, this land had been owned by a handful of forest products companies that managed the land as a long-term, multi-generational investment. Now the land was largely sub-divided and owned by companies with short-term time business horizons of 8 to 10 years, making it ripe for development. For communities that rely on natural resource and recreational tourism, loss of access as well as development of primitive landscapes would have a detrimental economic impact. Small local groups and large national conservation groups came together in partnership to support regional collaborative work focused on landscape-scale conservation. Initially, partners were convened as a project of the Northern Forest Alliance, which provided staffing and fiscal agency. As the network and funding strategy changed, the leadership of the Mahoosuc Initiative shifted from the Northern Forest Alliance (no longer in existence) to an Executive Committee of six partner organizations that now serves as the backbone to the network.
WHO IS INVOLVED
Partners of the Mahoosuc Initiative focus their efforts on bringing together the right partners, facilitating community dialogue, and helping draw in resources from inside and outside the region to new projects. Partners are able to do this through both local and national connections.
The key partners of the Initiative include the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), The Wilderness Society (TWS), the Androscoggin River Watershed Council (ARWC), the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, the Conservation Fund, Mahoosuc Pathways, the Northern Forest Center of the Trust for Public Land (TPL), the Tri-County Community Action Program, and the Mahoosuc Land Trust.
HOW THEY WORK TOGETHER
The Executive Committee of the Initiative, made up of six key partners, meets quarterly, led by staff from the Appalachian Mountain Club, The Wilderness Society, and the Androscoggin River Watershed Council. These meetings are typically project-focused, centering on project updates, deliverables, opposition concerns, or public advocacy needs. The Executive Committee reports to a broader partnership meeting that immediately follows.
Initially, the AMC provided a part-time staff person to the Initiative through support from the Betterment Fund. Then the Initiative attempted to work together “by committee” for the past few years, but found that the coordinating function was essential for some aspects of local project development and outreach in Maine. Landon Fake, Executive Director of Mahoosuc Pathways, now serves as part-time coordinator.
The Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge (UNWR) project serves as a good example of how the Initiative partners work together. Lake Umbagog is a wildlife refuge that sits across Maine and New Hampshire. UNWR initiated a process to revise their land management plan, which included a proposal to expand their boundary by some 50,000 acres. Mahoosuc Initiative partner organizations organized around a public dialogue process of town meetings and email outreach and generated over 12,000 supportive comments; trips to Washington, DC were organized and the congressional delegations from both Maine and New Hampshire were involved. The result of this broad-based community support for the project is that the boundary has been expanded, allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire land from willing land owners, thus conserving additional land for public access. As land continues to be put into conservation projects in the Mahoosuc Region, Mahoosuc Initiative partners perform the vital work of grassroots support and federal funding strategies.
Like any coalition that brings together partners with divergent opinions, the Initiative has had to work through differing perspectives, visions, and goals. Partners stay in the Initiative because there is an acknowledgement that more can be accomplished by working together than working separately. The combination of local, regional, and national partners puts the Initiative in the unique two-way position of connecting larger conservation projects with grassroots support, as well as providing opportunities for smaller organizations to tap into national resources. This structure works well in developing projects with strong community support.
PROGRESS TOWARDS GOAL
The Mahoosuc Initiative has accomplished many of the goals they initially set out to do, including protecting and conserving many acres of land and trails around the region, including the Androscoggin Headwaters Project and the Mahoosuc Gateway Project. Two map projects have promoted the region as a tourism destination: a driving touring loop map and a Mahoosuc Recreation map and guide. The touring loop map, which highlights area outdoor recreation businesses and roadside attractions, is currently about to head for its third printing and also exists as an iPhone app. Three years ago, 10,000 copies of a touring map were printed; this fall there will be a third printing, with an additional electronic application available for smart phones. The Recreation Map and Guide, published by Initiative Partner AMC, is a great additional map to the touring loop map, highlighting backcountry and non-motorized recreation in the region, such as road bike loops, river trails, and hiking trails.
In addition to these tangible accomplishments, the partners are especially proud of the relationships that have been built among the participating organizations. From the beginning, the Initiative wanted to create a network that was able to influence public policy, so partners typically focus on sharing information about the current political lay-of-the land. When the Obama administration created the America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative, landscapes across the United States were reviewed. Within Maine, the broader conservation community came together to put the Mahoosuc region on the map as one of the AGO landscapes, advancing the conservation movement in Maine and the region.
Currently the Initiative is now partnering with another network called the High Peaks Initiative to form the Androscoggin High Peaks Collaborative. This new collaborative wants to support landscape-scale conservation, hoping to broaden our state’s conservation focus to the entire western region of Maine. Currently partners have established an informal communication structure to share information and marketing capability for political and fundraising purposes.
Just fifteen years ago, the Mahoosuc region’s largest forested parcels were owned by five forest products companies, all of which have now left the region or dissolved as independent corporations. Currently 85 percent of the Mahoosuc region is in private ownership by investment trusts and timber management organizations, with future ownership uncertain. Continuing this ongoing shift in ownership and potential development patterns – Boston is less than three hours away and Portland just over an hour – could mean that the region’s landscape could be dramatically altered, along with traditional public use and access.
Partners of the Mahoosuc Initiative are always looking for community economic project opportunities, as well as opportunities to protect the land. Twenty years from now this area, full of mid-level plateaus, could be a key region for climate adaptation, providing ecological refuge for species that could be disappearing. Even as the conservation focus might shift, the work of the Initiative will continue to be based in local communities. The partners feel that what they do is not particularly extraordinary: they bring together local communities to develop local support for projects that are necessary for these communities to flourish.