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Maine's split personality

State's economic and cultural divide has many in north talking about secession

SHERMAN, Maine -- In the shrinking towns and one-store hamlets of northern Maine that once hummed with frontier bravado and a sense of opportunity, there is grumbling about what many consider the region's undoing: southern Maine.

Many here view Portland and the increasingly wealthy towns along the Atlantic coastline as an invading force of suburbanites intent on turning the economically struggling region of the north into a nature preserve. Northerners fear that hunting, fishing, and logging, among other cherished pursuits, would be restricted in a chase for eco-tourist dollars.

Many in northern Maine think such a transformation would mean the end of the state's longstanding ethic that extols living off the land. The thought has angered enough northerners that one state legislator has proposed that northern Maine secede from southern Maine.

''Northern Maine is what many consider the real Maine," said Henry Joy, a Republican state representative from Crystal, a town 45 miles west of the Canadian border, who suggests that the northern half of the state retain the name Maine and the southern half be renamed Northern Massachusetts.

Some in the north have embraced the idea with revolutionary zeal; in the south, many have dismissed it as reactionary bunk. And while Joy's proposal is not likely to win approval in the Legislature, it has underscored a widening class and cultural chasm in the state.

Northern Maine, which economists typically define as the area north of Bangor, has seen its fortunes plummet. Life in the north has never been glamorous or easy, and people long have earned their livings from staggeringly difficult labor. But downturns in the forestry and agriculture industries have sent thousands of northerners fleeing south seeking employment, leaving the area with a shrunken and aging population.

By contrast, southern Maine, with its outlet malls and ocean-side resorts, has enjoyed a windfall. An influx of newcomers, many from Massachusetts, has helped create a thriving service-based economy. Property values have skyrocketed, spurring development on a scale that rivals metropolitan Boston.

Using its augmented clout, northern Mainers say, the south has run roughshod over their ways. First came regulations on logging and farming that northern Mainers say cut into their productivity. Now, they say, the south is intent on transforming the region into a nature preserve that would make the land a museum object off-limits to snowmobilers, hunters, and forestry workers -- a move that many in the north say flagrantly ignores their ideal of Maine.

''It's like anything above Bangor doesn't exist," said Marilyn Keene, the assistant town manager in Sherman.

Southerners point out that large chunks of their tax dollars go north, subsidizing much of the region's school, health, and road costs. Southern legislators, who outnumber northern ones, say also they share responsibility for what happens in northern Maine.

''The population is spread the way it is," said Representative John Brautigam, a Kentucky native who lives in Falmouth, a bedroom community of Portland. ''I would like to see economic development throughout the state and I believe as a representative, it is my obligation to make laws for the state as a whole."

The divide between north and south, rural and urban, is not unique to Maine. Minnesota and New York, among others, have experienced similar schisms as mechanization and cheaper foreign labor have weakened their rural industries, economists say.

''This is an evolving tension," said Charlie Colgan, a public policy professor at the University of Southern Maine. ''It is part of the transformation from industrial to post-industrial, which works to the advantage of the urban areas."

In Maine, the division is particularly stark. There is little buffer between the forested expanse of northern Maine and the galloping development of southern and coastal Maine. The divide shows no signs of narrowing.

Between 1990 and 2000, the population of Maine grew by 35,000 people to 1.28 million, according the state planning office. But in the five northernmost counties -- Somerset, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Washington, and Aroostook -- the population decreased by 18,000. Annual median household income in these counties was about $8,000 less than in the rest of the state, according to census figures.

Maine's political leaders have sought for decades to redress the disparity. Former governor Angus King explored the construction of an east-west highway in the region, but its cost proved prohibitive. Governor John Baldacci has offered incentives to businesses to relocate to distressed areas. But businesses have been reluctant to move north to an area where a dwindling population means a diminished pool of workers.

''Every governor has made it a major program to improve the economic development of northern Maine," said Galen Rose, the acting state economist. ''I despair of ever finding anything that will bring the north economic equivalence with that of south . . . What's caused the situation are things much bigger than us. Worldwide changes, technological changes. So finding solutions is extremely difficult."

One group that says it has an answer is RESTORE: The North Woods. The conservation organization, based in Concord, Mass., has been pushing for the creation of a national park that would cover 3.2 million acres across a western swath of northern Maine, an area larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined.

The group, whose advisory board includes Hollywood stars Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, and Robert Redford, argues that the park would bring renewed economic vitality to northern Maine. They point to a study, commissioned by RESTORE and conducted by Thomas Power, chairman of the University of Montana economics department, which found that the park would create about 6,000 new jobs. Citing the experience of communities near existing national parks, such as Maine's Acadia National Park, the study suggests that the area's average income would probably increase.

Additionally, the group says, the park would save the land from development. Since 1998, forest and paper companies have sold an estimated 10 million of Maine's 21 million acres, mostly to private entities. These buyers have not revealed their plans for the land, but conservationists suspect they intend to develop subdivisions and pricey vacation homes.

The plan to create a park faces steep hurdles. Neither the governor nor the state's congressional delegation supports it. No congressional sponsor has emerged to back a feasibility study, the first step required for its creation.

The plan has met with opposition in northern Maine as well. Many cars in the area bear bumper stickers that read: ''RESTORE Boston: Leave our MAINE way of life alone" -- a reference to RESTORE's out-of-state headquarters.

The sticker ''is a clever way of opposing the park without dealing with the issues," answers Ken Spaulding, coordinator for RESTORE'S Maine Woods Park program. ''There are a lot of changes going on in the Maine woods. A lot of people are losing their jobs. People are looking for people to blame."

Northern Mainers say the issue is not about blame, but principle. Many here think the woods should be theirs to use without meddling by people ''from away" -- the term northerners reserve for out-of-state residents and southern Mainers. For many, the prospect of losing that freedom triggers anger and fear.

''There is this attitude that this part of the state should be nothing but black flies and moose," said Debbie Roak, the town manager of Sherman. ''Our needs are different and you can't mold us all into the same thing because it's not the same."

She added, ''I don't think they understand us, or care to."

The sentiment helps explain the hurrahs Joy gets as he talks up his secession proposal. Unlikely as secession may be, the idea has a radical, red-flag quality that is emotionally satisfying for people who believe their concerns have been brushed aside too long.

''I say split it," said Francis Cyr, 59, a disabled logger, who was waiting to order the $7.95 All You Can Eat Fish Fry at Porter's Restaurant in the town of Island Falls on a recent Friday evening. ''They change all the laws to help everyone but us."

''They're not doing anything for us," said Galen Porter, 81, the restaurant's owner, arms folded over his stout middle while he watched the town's main thoroughfare, a two-lane road with occasional passing pickup trucks. ''A 51st state -- sure, why not?"

Porter, a World War II veteran born in nearby Monticello, already has a name in mind for the post-secession entity: ''Aroostook State," a reference to Maine's northernmost county.

Others like secession as a way to stick it to the south. But they acknowledge that an autonomous north would not be economically viable.

''I see no point," said Rose Lindsay, 58, a special education teacher. ''Northern Maine will suffer. There are no jobs up here, and we rely heavily on southern Maine."

Joy says that the north would make up for southern money with a renewed frontier spirit that once defined the region's character but has dissipated in the murk of economic decline.

''We've had an exodus of businesses, created by laws, rules, and regulations that they put in effect in the southern part of the state," Joy said. ''So now the north has accepted a welfare state attitude: 'We'll wait and see what we get from southern Maine.' Secession would energize people."

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.

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