HOULTON, Maine – Albro “Al” Cowperthwaite of Houlton knew at a fairly young age that he was destined to spend time in the woods.
Little did he know then that his passion for all things the outdoors would lead him to a 45-year career in the woods of northern Maine, including 39 years as a general manager. Cowperthwaite, 67, of Houlton retired as head of North Maine Woods in late September.
The woods of northern Maine are primarily managed forest lands that also support all types of outdoor recreation. The more than 3.5 million acres include the Saint John River and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, among other areas popular with outdoor enthusiasts. The General Manager oversees and manages public access and recreational use of the area.
“I loved hunting and fishing growing up,” he said. “We had a family camp and I was always outside. I remember telling a friend of mine when we were in high school that “Somehow I have to make a living with this fishing and outdoor stuff.”
This is precisely what Cowperthwaite did, landing an internship in the summer of 1976 for the North Maine Woods as part of his studies in forest management at the University of Maine at Orono.
“When I finished my studies, the state made an inventory of all the development in the unorganized townships,” he said. “My job was to go to those areas, with a milk crate full of aerial photographs, and document where the roads and openings were. “
His work often included detailed information about all the camps in the area, right down to the color of the buildings, whether there were outhouses and hangars, and how far away they were.
At that time, there were no GPS devices or smartphones to let Cowperthwaite know exactly where he was, and on more than one occasion he ended up somewhere other than where he was supposed to be.
Cowperthwaite spent 13 weeks – from June 1 to the end of November – cataloging these structures. Many nights were spent sleeping in his automobile – a Toyota Land Cruiser station wagon equipped with a stove and mini-fridge – to save time and money.
“It was big enough for me to lie in it so I could sleep,” he said. “This thing was like a tank. I found a place to stay, often near a lake so that I could use my canoe. It was an incredible experience. “
If the lake was big enough, Cowperthwaite said he would remove the battery from his vehicle and use it to power an electric motor for his canoe.
“I always made sure to park on a hill, so if the battery was dead I could start [the car] drive and pull the clutch to start it, ”he joked.
The history of the woods of northern Maine is complicated. It grew from a landowners committee in the mid-1960s to a formal organization in 1971 that manages access and recreation opportunities for over 3.5 million acres of land primarily in the northwestern part of the Maine, according to the North Maine Woods website,
In 1975 the association became a partnership and North Maine Woods became a not-for-profit corporation under Maine law in 1981.
“Al’s retirement is a great loss for all who work, use and enjoy the woods of northern Maine,” said forester Dan Jacobs of Littleton. “Fortunately, Al has positioned the organization for continued success for years to come.”
Governor Janet Mills commemorated Cowperthwaite’s work in a letter to him, praising his 45 years of commitment to land conservation and public access, and telling him he should be proud to have developed a model of collaboration in the exploited forest.
“From managing 3.5 million acres of private land for public use to establishing the Sportsman / Forest Landowner Alliance, you have provided continued leadership in North Maine Woods, ensuring that lovers of outdoors, landowners and forest products companies can coexist peacefully, ”she said. noted.
One of Cowperthwaite’s supreme accomplishments as Managing Director has been to increase public access to large tracts of private property. For years the logging roads in northern Maine Woods were closed and locked, only those in the logging industry could access them.
Today, many of these roads are open to the public, providing access to Maine’s outdoor heritage for generations to come.
“Al is a big part of the reason the organization has been so successful over the past four plus decades,” said Jacobs. “With Al’s leadership, the woods of northern Maine are a shining example of how active forest management and traditional recreational uses can coexist in northern Maine. “
“It’s a real balancing act,” said Cowperthwaite. “It’s not about money, it’s about the privilege of using the land.
The only change he wished it hadn’t happened is the time today’s young people spend in the great outdoors.
“There has been a demographic shift with more single parent families, so today it’s harder for kids to go out and just be kids,” Cowperthwaite said. “When I was young we would spend all day, but today with kids involved in so many organized activities it’s not the same.”
Cowperthwaite’s words of wisdom to his successor – a retired Maine State Soldier and former Fort Kent Police Chief Thomas Pelletier – were simple: “Let your staff do their job,” he said. he declares. “It’s pretty basic, but it’s pretty important.”