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Maine History Online
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1970-Present Rediscovery & Rebirth

Tourism grew from 10 million travelers annually in 1972 to 45 million in 2004.

Maine's economy melded almost imperceptibly with regional and national trends, but persistent problems in rural districts back from the I-95 Corridor gave poverty a somewhat distinctive cast in the "other" Maine.

During the 1970s Maine moved to the forefront among states in environmental legislation. Galvanized by pressure from sports enthusiasts, resort proprietors, coastal and riverside residents, and business leaders, the Curtis administration stiffened Maine's antipollution laws.

In the last three decades of the 20th century Maine brought its economy into line with the American mainstream, but even as the state became more modern, it managed to preserve a traditional way of life. This was possible because citizens chose to balance, and indeed blend the state's need for an expanding economy with its commitment to protecting a rich environment and unique culture.

The choices necessary to maintain this balance were neither easy nor simple, but they reflected a responsive and inventive commitment to Maine on the part of natives and newcomers alike.

State government was a key to forging this new Maine. The legislature passed a state income tax in 1969, and Governor Kenneth Curtis increased spending to protect the environment, equalize school funding, and improve highways.

To offset these expenses, he consolidated the state's labyrinth of bureaus, boards, and agencies into some 20 larger and more manageable departments and brought the state's Library, Archives, and Museum together in a new building in the capitol complex.

This rising demand for state services triggered a legislative cost study chaired by James B. Longley, who, in 1974 became Maine's first independent governor. Longley held the line on taxes and state services. He was followed by Democrat Joseph E. Brennan who, like Curtis, used the government to boost Maine's economy, attracting several thousand new jobs.

In the 1970s, Maine's textile slump finally eased, and an influx of young, well-educated newcomers helped speed the transition to a more technologically sophisticated economy. The economic pace slowed late in the decade, but expansions in paper production, defense, electronics and assembling, and services kept unemployment under the national average.

Maine's economy faltered in the 1990s, but again losses were offset by growth in light manufacturing, services, and durable goods. Structurally Maine's economy remained sound. Its transportation and communications were on par with the rest of the nation, its civic life was vibrant, and the state government was among the most honest and accessible in the nation.

The paper industry endured two devastating mill strikes and a work stoppage by wood contractors in last decades of the century, along with rising worker-compensation insurance costs and a severe spruce budworm epidemic.

To contain the insect infestation, companies adopted clear-cutting techniques, which resulted in a political backlash.

By the 1980s paper producers were facing national and global competition, and these new uncertainties, coupled with shorter investment horizons, touched off a rash of company buy-outs.

These unsettling changes triggered public concern and inspired several public and private efforts to acquire wildlands for conservation and recreational purposes. The Nature Conservancy purchased 175,000 acres of timberland along the St. John River, and in 2003 entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby acquired an entire township near Baxter State Park hoping to build consensus for a new national park.

After paper, tourism was Maine's most important "export" industry, bringing in $4 billion yearly. While 19th-century tourism depended on railroads, steamships, trolleys, summer hotels, and wilderness camps, the 20th-century variety required a new auto-based infrastructure, beginning with completion of U.S. Routes 1 and 2 in the 1920s, the Carleton Bridge across the Kennebec in 1928, and the Waldo-Hancock Bridge in 1932.

The Maine Turnpike, finished to Augusta in 1955 and to Houlton via I-95 in 1967, extended the reach of auto tourism during years when the Maine Central and Bangor and Aroostook railroads were ending passenger service.

Tourism grew from 10 million travelers annually in 1972 to 45 million in 2004. While much of this was concentrated in southern Maine and during peak summer months, fall color promotions, new ski resorts, and services for snowmobiling broadened the geographical base and seasonal reach of the industry.

Maine's per capita income remained at 85 percent of the national average, but paper, tourism, service, light industry, and defense were all somewhat immune to recession, giving the economy a stability Maine had not seen since the first half of the 19th century.

Older industries remained precarious, however. In the mid 1960s, multi-million-dollar foreign factory trawlers appeared off the coast, and within six years the fisheries stood on the brink of collapse.

The 1976 Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act established a 200-mile limit, within which only U.S. vessels could fish, and provided government loans to modernize the U.S. fleet, but in 1984 the World Court gave Canada sovereignty over most of the productive Georges Bank, and on the U.S. side, fish populations declined quickly. Under the Magnuson Act, the New England Fisheries Council was tasked with restoring the Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine; whether the damage was irreparable remained to be seen.

Lobster was the state's premier example of sound fishing strategies, with landings rising from a postwar 20 million pounds to a historic high of 60 million pounds at the end of the century. Among other factors, the increase was due to sound conservation practices and, after 1997, local governance through designated lobster zones. Other inshore fisheries – groundfish, sea urchins, and herring – were less successful.

Maine's recovery was most evident in what came to be termed the "creative economy": a mix of small, leading-edge technical and communications businesses coupled with a flourishing arts, crafts, cultural, and environmental tourism scene.

At the turn of the century organizations like Greater Portland Landmarks, Mountain Counties Heritage Network, and the Down East Heritage Center added new points of attraction to the tourist landscape, and better hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing trails with huts, lodges, and other facilities signaled the potential for eco- and heritage tourism, as did walking and driving tours, guides to Maine crafts and culture, the Maine Island Trail, the Maine Landscape Garden Trail, and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.

Transportation such as the Downeaster rail connection to Boston, the Mount Desert Island Explorer bus, and stops for ocean liners in Portland, Bar Harbor, and Bangor also helped broaden the tourist base. The yearly Common Ground Fair in Unity and American Folk Festival in Bangor attracted thousands of visitors and enhanced Maine's cultural image.

While jobs in tourism remained among the lowest paid in the Maine economy, the new creative economy offered business opportunities in recreational instruction, arts and crafts, and services.

Maine's economy melded almost imperceptibly with regional and national trends, but persistent problems in rural districts back from the I-95 Corridor gave poverty a somewhat distinctive cast in the "other" Maine.

Rural poverty, characterized by low wages, part-time and seasonal jobs, frequent layoffs, and the need to work two or three jobs to stay afloat, rose from 13 percent of the population in the 1970s to 16 percent in the early 1980s due to rising rents and utility rates, stagnant rural industries, and the loss of unionized manufacturing jobs.

The most dramatic change in the nature of poverty was the growing number of working poor, single mothers, and elderly on fixed incomes.

Maine Pastoralism: The Way Life Should Be?

Maine's long textile recession had buffered the state from the economic growth pains experienced elsewhere in the nation, and in the last third of the 19th century, Americans embraced the idea of open or pastoral landscapes as a spiritual refuge from urban society.

Infused with rich pastoral imagery by writers like Henry Beston, Robert P. Tristram Coffin, Ruth Moore, Mary Ellen Chase, and Sarah Orne Jewett, the coast experienced a real-estate boom that highlighted this new post-industrial significance.

In a 1970 newspaper article, commentator Bob Cummings pointed out that only 1.4 percent of Maine's 3,000 mile coast was in public hands, while several million metropolitan residents lived within a day's drive of this choice waterfront property.

Maine's new pastoral status attracted a generation of young, well-educated in-migrants seeking safe towns, inexpensive real estate, lower property taxes, and human-scale neighborhoods. In general terms, they were interested in a higher quality of life, an important consideration in a society wracked by war, civil protest, urban crises, and dissatisfaction with consumerism. The state still saw a net outflow of post-high-school age youth, but the counter-flow more than compensated.

In the mid-1970s Maine gained 36,000 new citizens per year and lost 30,000 to out-migration. With births exceeding deaths, Maine population grew steadily, putting pressure on the state's educational system and other services. Migrants also included a smaller stream of African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics, although overseas migration remained limited.

Newcomers settled largely in southern Maine, and primarily in small and medium-sized towns. Almost half were from other New England states, with 22 percent from Massachusetts. Most were young with relatively small families, and nearly 43 percent had completed at least four years of college.

Maine's attractiveness was also evident in a pronounced "back to the land" migration. A revival of small-scale family farming, the new homesteading, as it was sometimes called, was fueled by a romantic idealization of the Maine countryside, a Jeffersonian ideology updated by small-farm advocates like Wendell Berry, and by magazines like Mother Earth News.

Helen and Scott Nearing, who spent nearly a half-century on subsistence farms in Jamaica, Vermont, and Harborside, Maine, exemplified this spirit in their many publications, including Living the Good Life (1954) and Continuing the Good Life (1979). Stressing independence, organic living, and a balanced regimen of hard work and leisurely contemplation, they appealed to a generation jaded by urban life and consumer capitalism.

Maine's mid-coast was particularly attractive, offering fertile soil, low property values, and a scattering of operating farms to provide support, advice, and jobs for the newcomers, whose aspirations – peace of mind, self-reliance, autonomy, harmony with land, and hard work – were not all that different from traditional Maine values.

The back-to-the-land movement put Maine in the forefront of a rapidly growing trend in producing food without chemicals. Rachel Carson's best-selling Silent Spring (1962) raised awareness of problems such as soil and water toxicity and chemical residuals in foods, and in the 1970s doctors found traces of dangerous chemicals in human tissue.

Responding to these concerns, organic farmers grew vegetables, fruits, berries, poultry, and livestock and produced baked products, fabrics, preserves, greenhouse plants, and other niche commodities, which they sold directly through roadside stands and farmers' markets or in health-food stores.

In 1970 farmers interested in organic products began meeting around the state and formed the Maine Organic Foods Association. In 1972 the re-named Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association announced Maine's first certified organic farm: the 140-acre Ken-Ro Farm in Plymouth. With reliable and consistent labeling and certification, the industry expanded into chain supermarkets.

About a quarter of Maine's traditional farmers began experimenting with crop diversification and rotation to stabilize income and reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers. The 1970s also brought a revival of part-time "values" farming, as families frustrated with urban life and enticed by improved country roads chose to live on a farm and commute to work.

Like farmers since Maine's beginnings, they gained a sense of independence by making do with less – in this case, less machinery, government support, and marketing intermediaries.

These developments helped reverse a long downward trend in the number of Maine farms, which dropped to 6,800 in 1975 then increased 20 percent over the next two decades.

Remaining traditional farms tended toward highly mechanized operations specializing in potatoes for chips and frozen-food packages, poultry and eggs, dairy products, apples, blueberries, or cattle.

High entrance costs, long and difficult work-days, smaller families, and a rising number of rural women holding non-farm jobs impinged on the family farm; at the end of the century only a third of Maine farms had been owned successively by two generations of the same family. For those farming near cities, suburban development brought conflicts over early morning mechanical noise, fertilizer smells, and pesticide drift.

While farmland in Maine declined from 1.5 million acres in 1950 to fewer than 600,000 acres in 1990, suburban land nearly doubled to approximately 1.2 million acres. Here again Maine's appealing pastoral image encouraged a demographic drift to the countryside, encouraged by improved roads, rising city taxes, and mortgage interest tax deductions and other federal housing incentives. At the same time, older cities and towns were saddled with underused service infrastructure.

Maine's new post-industrial status also stimulated interest in Portland's long-neglected waterfront district. In the 1970s Americans rediscovered older city districts left behind in the rush to build towers of concrete, steel, and glass, and city planners took advantage of federal redevelopment and revitalization programs and new public transit systems to reconfigure these intimate old neighborhoods as regional-theme open-air shopping districts. Portland's Fore-Street neighborhood had been colonized in the 1970s by artists, craftspeople, and start-up entrepreneurs seeking cheaper rent.

Aware of waterfront developments elsewhere, real estate investors organized the Old Port Association and encouraged the city to repair the sidewalks, install street lights, plant trees, and build parking garages.

In 1977 the city issued bonds to build the Cumberland County Civic Center on the edge of the district, and with tax incentives and federal grants, builders transformed the old houses, apartment buildings, brick commercial buildings, and warehouses into a romantic archetype of the old New England seaport, with cobble streets, boutiques, bakeries, arts-and-craft shops, pubs, and specialty restaurants. Augusta and Bangor followed suit with somewhat less ambitious waterfront plans.

Remote areas of Maine saw similar post-industrial development when ski resort complexes at Sugarloaf, Saddleback, and Sunday River expanded into all-season recreation and leisure accommodations, bringing tourist development in the form of inns, condominiums, golf links, motels, restaurants, night spots, A-frames, lodges, and clothing and equipment shops at the resorts or in nearby towns like Kingfield, Rangeley, and Bethel.

Civil Rights in Maine

In the last third of the century Maine's Franco-Americans, Native Americans, and African-Americans developed a new sense of ethnic awareness that brought significant gains. Franco-American cultural cohesion was at its height in the early 20th century, but nativist pressure, a protracted out-migration from the depressed New England mill towns, and persistent stereotyping and repression in schools eroded cultural awareness. Parish schools shut down, and the tight-knit "Petits Canadas" of the Northeast dispersed.

Then, ethnic pride increased. In 1972 students and community volunteers founded the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine and published the FAROG Forum, the largest circulating French-language publication in the United States. Van Buren's Acadian Village opened in 1976, and Franco-American heritage festivals and organizations dedicated to preserving Franco culture began in Lewiston-Auburn, Biddeford and other communities.

African-Americans made similar strides. In a state where blacks formed less than 1 percent of the population, racism was, in the words of civil-rights leader Gerald Talbot, "very subtle ... until it hits you in the face."

Barred from better-paying occupations, African-Americans worked typically as laborers, stevedores, waitresses, domestic servants, cooks, porters, custodians, and truckers. Civil-rights politics first surfaced in the early 1920s when Bangor-area residents established a short-lived chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Activities intensified at the end of the Second World War, partly due to the presence of black military personnel in Bangor, Brunswick, and Portland. During the late 1940s, Bangor activists formed the Penobscot Interracial Forum, and in 1947 those in Portland founded a chapter of the NAACP with ties to Maine's only black church, Green Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion. In 1959 the state passed a public accommodations bill, but its effect was limited.

In 1962 the Maine NAACP, with new chapters in Lewiston-Auburn and Brunswick, began a statewide campaign to expand the 1959 bill using mass protests, publicity, legislative lobbying, and court litigation.

In 1965 the legislature passed the Maine Fair Housing Bill, which became law in 1966, and two years later Governor Curtis established a Task Force on Human Rights, which uncovered a pattern of discrimination in education, housing, and employment. The legislature responded in 1971 with a more effective civil rights bill and a Maine Human Rights Commission.

In 1972 Portland's Gerald Talbot became the first African American elected to the Maine House of Representatives, and in 1988 William Burney, another African American, was elected mayor of Augusta. John Jenkins followed Burney in 1993 as mayor of Lewiston and became the first black state senator in Maine's history in 1996.

Maine Native Americans faced similar discrimination, coupled with a long history of dispossession from their tribal homelands. In 1957 a non-Indian began building a cabin on lands deeded to the Passamaquoddy Tribe by a 1794 treaty with Massachusetts. Roadblocks and appeals to Governor John R. Reed were unsuccessful, but the event called attention to some 6,000 acres of Passamaquoddy land that had been sold, leased, or given away in violation of the 1794 treaty.

When the Tribe filed a lawsuit in 1968, attorney Thomas Tureen discovered that the 1794 treaty itself was illegal under the federal Indian Nonintercourse Act of 1790, which prohibited all states from signing treaties with Native Americans.

This put about 60 percent of Maine's land base in dispute, and in 1975 the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state and its largest landholders on behalf of the tribe for return of the land. The size of the claim – 12.5 million acres involving 350,000 white residents – made this the most complicated land claim case in the nation's history.

The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, signed by President Carter in 1981, gave the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Penobscot Indian Nation, and Houlton Band of Maliseets $81.5 million, the largest settlement of its kind and the first to include provisions for the reacquisition of land.

Modern Maine: Education

Maine took a number of steps to improve education: higher teacher salaries, higher per-student expenditures, increased graduation requirements, and the 1997 Maine Learning Results that established specific learning standards. The Laptop Program, initiated in 2002, provided each middle-school student in the state with a laptop computer.

As part of a broader administrative consolidation program, Governor Kenneth Curtis brought the state's public universities and colleges together under a single board of trustees in 1968. With tuition high by national comparisons and Maine incomes relatively low, Curtis hoped to close the gap between Maine's impressive high-school graduation rate and its relatively low participation in higher education.

The new University of Maine System included the campuses in Orono and Portland. The system also included the state's five teachers' colleges at Farmington, Machias, Presque Isle, Augusta, and Fort Kent, each given university status.

Another change in the higher-education system came in 2003 with the creation of a community college network.

Maine and the Environment

During the 1970s Maine moved to the forefront among states in environmental legislation. Galvanized by pressure from sports enthusiasts, resort proprietors, coastal and riverside residents, and business leaders, the Curtis administration stiffened Maine's antipollution laws in 1969 and 1970, making the new Environmental Improvement Commission one of the most powerful agencies in the state.

Maine's paper mills spent millions of dollars on technology for waste recovery and recycling, reducing the pollution load by about 90 percent over the decade. The Androscoggin River, once among the most polluted in the nation, sported bass and brown trout at the end of the century.

In addition, Maine took on a broader spectrum of environmental issues, including proposals for oil tanker-ports and oil refineries in Portland, Searsport, Eastport, and Machiasport. While none came to fruition, the fierce debates helped consolidate an environmental constituency and raise awareness of the Maine coast as a national icon. A number of pieces of legislation aided these efforts.

A 1976 referendum, passed by a 60 percent margin despite a huge media blitz by opponents, established a Returnable Beverage Container Law. Expanded in 1989, it gave Maine one of the most comprehensive bottle bills in the nation.

Another focus of environmental concern was protecting the wilderness quality of the northern and western forest lands, the gravest threat being a hydroelectric dam proposal for the pristine St. John River. The Dickey dam, an earth-fill structure more than two miles long and higher than the Hoover Dam, was to be coupled with a smaller re-regulating dam at Lincoln School.

Announced in 1963 as the largest public works undertaking in New England history, Dickey-Lincoln would have eliminated 267 miles of free-flowing streams on the St. John drainage, along with 30 lakes and ponds and 76,000 acres of forest.

In 1976 surveyors found a rare snapdragon known as the Furbish lousewort growing in the reservoir area, and environmentalists nominated the plant for the Endangered Species list. With this issue hanging over the project, opponents challenged the dam's cost-benefit analysis and stressed the issue of Maine sovereignty, since much of the power would have been exported to southern New England.

With pressure from paper companies concerned about their timberlands, from private utilities companies worried about a competing public power project, and from the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, the Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters, and numerous conservation organizations, prospects for the dam grew dim. In 1983 Congress quietly de-authorized the dam.

The controversy over Dickey-Lincoln triggered a movement to save the nearby Allagash River from logging, dams, and development. Rejecting an ambitious plan to create a new national park along the river, state legislators established the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in 1966, and in 1968 the 90-mile section was included as a state-administered unit in the National Wild and Scenic River System.

These debates drew attention to Maine's north woods, a 10-million acre privately owned but undeveloped tract comprising about half the state.

With a nationwide boom in second-home construction, the woods seemed at risk, and in 1969 the legislature mandated a comprehensive land-use plan for the territory, resulting in creation of the Land Use Regulation Commission in 1971. In 1976, it issued a comprehensive land-use plan that followed four premises: that the area's wild character would be preserved; that the woods would serve multiple uses for timber harvesting, recreation, and habitat protection; that there would be limits on population growth and development; and that most new development would occur in or near areas where development already existed.

Elsewhere, the paper industry accommodated recreational use by providing public access to company lands and offering long-term camp leases on lakes and rivers. Maine had divested its public lands in the 19th century, and with an established tradition of public access to private timberlands, few saw the need for public ownership.

But with recreational use on the rise, company officials worked with state and private conservation organizations to provide easements that would sort out potentially conflicting uses. By the 1990s land ownerships were changing at a dizzying rate, bringing the threat of liquidation or conversion of timberlands to second-home subdivisions.

In 1981 after a long court battle, the state regained control over thousands of acres of wild lands, and a land swap resulted in Maine owning some large and spectacular wilderness tracts. In 1987 Maine citizens approved by referendum a $35 million bond issue for land-acquisition and created a Land for Maine's Future Board.

The agency purchased Mount Kineo on Moosehead Lake and a section of the Downeast "Bold Coast" in Cutler. With additional bond issues in 1991, 1999, 2005, and 2007, the agency spent a total of $72 million to conserve 445,000 acres of forests, waterfronts, and mountaintops.

Maine people found even greater room for agreement in a long-standing project to restore migratory fish, particularly salmon, to the state's rivers. In 1948 the Maine Atlantic Sea Run Salmon Commission was founded in cooperation with the Department of Inland Fish and Game, the Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries, the University of Maine, and the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife.

After surveying the stocks of wild salmon, principally in the Penobscot and eastern rivers, the commission prepared to add fishways to the lower Penobscot dams and work progressively upriver as they gauged how salmon dealt with the still-polluted waters.

The effort to restore migratory fish received a boost in 1997 when the Edwards Dam in Augusta became the first in history to have its license renewal refused by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, because its environmental costs outweighed its economic benefits.

In a historic settlement between state and federal agencies and private businesses, the Edwards Dam was removed in 1999. Subsequent years saw dramatic increases in sea-run and resident fish and in osprey, bald eagles, heron, cormorants, and kingfishers.

A similar restoration project on the Penobscot River was undertaken with the Penobscot Indian Nation, American Rivers, Maine Audubon, Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Trout Unlimited to form the Penobscot River Restoration Trust in 2005. The migratory fish restoration project, like other aspects of Maine's environmental movement, reflected a strong commitment to forging ahead economically while preserving the best of Maine's past.

Encouraged by the state's heavy reliance on tourism, its aura of "unspoiled" landscapes, and its attachment to an ill-defined but evocative "Maine Way of Life," these environmental campaigns succeeded because Maine's commitment to the protecting its values was bipartisan, and because Maine people supported a vibrant tradition of grass-roots activism.

Innovations in health, education, and the alleviation of poverty, new developments in arts, crafts, and agriculture, a strong civil rights record, and a nationally acclaimed environmental program – together these aspects of Maine's history reflect a responsive and inventive approach to preserving the past and working toward the future.