Al Cowperthwaite, executive director of North Maine Woods (NMW) for 46 years, is retiring this month. A Houlton native, Cowperthwaite, 67, says it time for “new blood” and for him “to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren.”
Tom Pelletier, an Aroostook County native, has been selected to replace Cowperthwaite.
Cowperthwaite attended Houlton schools and got his feet wet in outdoor recreation by working at his family’s campground on Nickerson Lake, which Cowperthwaite calls home today with his wife Linda. He graduated from the University of Maine in 1976. Upon graduation he went to work for North Maine Woods, which had been created in 1970, led by northern Maine forester John Sinclair, also president and founder of Seven Islands Land Company.
North Maine Woods is a cooperative effort by many private landowners in northwestern Maine to keep 3.5 million acres of forest land open to public use. The NMW management system was created in 1971.
Cowperthwaite was named executive director of NMW in 1982. Although the outgoing director is clearly proud of the smooth-running organization that NMW is today, he does remember that the land management system was not without some difficulties and even controversy in the early days. In 1970, when NMW began a gate system for overseeing recreational use of its 3.5 million acres, there was some public pushback. Vandals sought to punish NMW by burning buildings and fueling tension and unrest.
“From 1971 until about 1986,” says Cowperthwaite, “our camping fees were not sufficient to support our operational budget. Many of the landowners were taking up the financial slack.” Today, NMW, a non-profit organization, supports its own operational costs for gatekeepers and managers with modest day-use gate and camping fees.
Each year, between moose hunters, bear hunters and grouse hunters, as well as campers, more outdoor recreationalists pass through NMW gates than the gates at Baxter State Park!
When the outgoing director was asked to share an observation looking back over his career with NMW he never hesitated: “My job was a fun and satisfying experience because of a public that has just been wonderful over the years.” He explains that public campers have almost always been responsible with campfires and there have been few problems with littering or illegal dumping. And the checkpoint system has served to keep theft and vandalism to a minimum throughout the NMW acreage.
The Houlton man will stick around the NMW office until mid-September to help “break in” his successor. Given Al Cowperthwaite’s respected legacy as the voice and leader of North Maine Woods for so many years, we know that so many others around the state join me in wishing our friend Al a long and happy retirement.