Thursday, June 24, 2010

Old Stories Breathe New Life

By Tori Britton
(photo courtesy of Wally Paul)

Back when Bangor Metro first began, we had a guest opinion in every issue. One of the most informative and provocative ones was called How Great Northern Paper Company Fell, Part 1 and Part 2. We encourage you to read this fascinating story, from one man’s point of view.

Each year, we still hear from people who read the piece. Today -- five years after its publication -- we received the following email from Wayne Hockmeyer, who was mentioned in Woodbury’s article. Hockmeyer founded Northern Outdoors in the late 70s. His view lends another must-read perspective.

Here is his Wayne Hockmeyer’s email (it's a bit long, but worth the read):
I read with interest the article by David A. Woodbury entitled "How Great Northern Paper Company Fell". Bangor Metro magazine, August 2005. It is a tragic story and one with which I have many regrets.

I would like to set the record straight on his mention of "Hockmeyer's group never explained how it was environmentally friendly for 30,000 rafters (his estimate) to leave their bodily waste along the riverbank each summer."

The truth is that we carried out all our human waste every day in portable porta-potties. We caused no measurable environmental damage at all. A rubber raft cannot wear out the water, however, environmental damage was never the real issue with those of us in the whitewater rafting industry.

We were business people who were about to lose our businesses if Big A dam was to be built. I, and the majority of raft company owners, did not want to get in a fight with Great Northern Paper Company. I knew that they intended to build the dam before Great Northern even publicly announced their intentions to build the dam.

I asked Great Northern for a meeting to discuss ways in which we could work together to avoid a dam fight. I proposed to them that they release water flows in the "dry way", the section of river immediately below Ripogenous Dam that had been dried up when they diverted the river underground to the MaCay Station Power House over a mile down river. I said that if they would release water on Saturday and Sunday mornings only, we could run weekend trips and pay them $6.00 per head. I knew that this head fee generated more money than the electricity created by the water flow.

I asked that we be given campsites on the new lake that would be created by the Big A dam. We could have lunch on these campsites and then bus our customers around the Big A dam and continue our raft trip on the section of river below that was unaffected by the new dam. I pointed out that it would be very good for the economy of the area and we could work together to publicly promote the benefits of cooperation between business and outdoor wilderness recreation. I said we could both have what we wanted and avoid conflict. I did not like or want the dam, but I understood the importance of the dam and the economy of northern Maine.

A large number of Great Northern executives were at the meeting. What I did not understand was the fact that Great Northern did not want to encourage more public use on their land. They had been generous in allowing public use of their land in exchange for very low taxes. They were, however, not interested in encouraging more recreation. They viewed public recreation as a problem that they accepted for creating good public relations. The company policy was to limit any great increases in recreational use. The ideas that I proposed fell on deaf ears.

Great Northern also did not feel that they had to compromise with anyone. They were the largest, most powerful company in the State of Maine and the idea that they had to accommodate a bunch of small whitewater raft outfitters was absurd. They dismissed me and said I could not put my rafts in at MaCay Station, which would have essentially eliminated the best whitewater section of the river from my trip. Denying access to the upper river was illegal, but Great Northern was relying on local law enforcement to back them up. The truth is that they simply did not understand that the world was changing and misunderstood that environmental issues were no longer local, but encompassed a large number of out of state organizations that looked for causes to generate money and membership to grow themselves.

I loved the wilderness and everything it represented, but I also realized that man, by necessity, has had to harness and exploited the earth's natural resources. I have always seen man as a part of nature, not an intruder. It is not realistic to think that Maine could lock up a vast wilderness area as a "park". I was a conservationist, not an environmentalist, who sees any development as abhorrent and a sin against nature. I believe truth in any matter is in the middle not in the extremes. However, I needed to build a coalition other interests.

When Great Northern rejected my proposal I knew that I had no choice but to fight, and events quickly became very nasty. I was aware that I, myself, could never stop Big A.

Brownie Carson was not responsible for stopping the Big A dam. His Natural Resource Council of Maine had repeatedly refused to take on the Big A dam fight. It was the Whitewater Rafting Industry itself that raised large sums of money and thousands of letters of protest from our customers to the editor of Maine newspapers.

It was the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine that saw a valuable fishery about to be destroyed and took up our cause. It was a very difficult position for them to take because they always had very good relations with Great Northern. It was only when The Natural Resource Council of Maine saw the growth of Sam's membership and the money that we funneled into that organization, that the Natural Resource Council of Maine came to us and said that they had decided to join the fight and would bring in all the major environmental groups in the East.

They also said that the outfitters had to personally guarantee to raise a minimum of $50,000 and sign agreements to be personally responsible for any short fall.

We also had to agree to sell T-shirts for them on all our trips, sign up members to the coalition, give them our mailing lists to raise money, and run special trips for them as fundraisers. We were not rich and this was a big commitment for all the rafters.

The environmental organizations took up the fight because that was where the money was. They were envious of SAM's success.

The raft industry had successfully bought the muscle to fight the dam, but I never envisioned the destruction that would follow.

The fight eventually turned into the biggest environmental and political issue in Maine history. It resulted in ruining my personal reputation, Great Northern losing its dam and national environmental organizations becoming involved in Maine politics. It ultimately became very damaging to the whitewater industry.

The coalition to stop the dam was made up of strange bedfellows. Many members of the environmental movement believed that the raft companies should be restricted in size based on their own belief that too many people in the wilderness is bad. The fact that 99% of our customers had little idea of the number of people on the river and we had almost 100% customer satisfaction was unimportant to them. The very idea that we needed to run a certain number of people to be profitable and run successful companies that could pay our employees decent salaries was not justification to make money in their church.

We were increasingly uncomfortable with them and asked that if we lost the fight, that Great Northern be forced to mitigate our damages by putting water in the "dry way" on weekends.

The environmentalists said that admitting Great Northern could mitigate anything would weaken our dam fight. If we lost, we would lose everything. They said there would be no water in the "dry way".

Their position was the "dry way" was unrunnable. Since I had run the "dry way" a number of times on high water, I told them that their position was a lie and the raft industry would not willingly go out of business if we should lose the fight. I asked them if they would also close their doors if we lost. They said they were different from a business. I reminded them that we had raised the money to save our businesses and they were not willing to save the river unless we raised the money for them. It was hypocrisy on a grand scale. They threatened us with "you are all wearing white hats, if you pull out we will put black hats on all your heads." They refused to allow mitigation if we lost.

They said they had our mailing lists and would tell our own customers that we had sold out and to raft only with the company's that took their position that the "dry way" was unrunnable.

The idea that mass mailings from our own mailing lists would recommend the companies that accepted their terms proved to be irresistible to the sleaziest outfitters and they stayed with the coalition. The majority of outfitters were outraged by the threats, the bullying, and the violation of our agreement that our mailing lists would only be used for the purpose of raising money.

I am proud to say that they stuck together and we dropped out of the coalition and went to Great Northern and said we did not support the dam, but would not fight it any longer if they would work with us. Great Northern agreed, but it was too late for them to prevail. The dam was lost and the bitterness and enemies that had been created due to the fight would go on long after the fight was over. There were large numbers of environmentalists in state government in many different regulatory departments. The newspapers that bought newsprint from Great Northern were unhappy about the death of the dam.

As the point man and voice in the whitewater industry I became number one enemy of the environmentalists. They sent people from every bureaucrat department in Augusta to write up violations on my company. It was never ending, year after year, in a desperate attempt to stop my success. Eventually this led to legislation that tried to make all whitewater companies equal.

The whitewater industry itself was severely damaged and its potential economic benefit to the State of Maine crippled by government intervention that attempted to limit the free enterprise system under the guise of environmental protection. It affected all the people who worked for whitewater rafting companies and greatly limited the overall quality of the Maine whitewater experience to the people who came to raft. Government cannot legislate success or make people equal. Business is supposed to be about serving the public best, not about protecting those who can only muster up an inferior competitive product.

Government never produces wealth and never will. It devours wealth and only seeks to protect those who work for it. It is run by people who have never produced more than they consume.

One hundred thousand Maine people left the State last year because there was no opportunity to make a decent life. It is very sad because Maine is unique in its natural recreational resources. Its educational system is very poor, its taxes exorbitant, and its regulation of every aspect of business development and practice is extreme.

The truth is that Great Northern made mistakes that cost them the dam. In retrospect they should have been allowed to build the dam because of the number of ordinary people who depended on the company to make a living. The unions made mistakes by demanding more money than the company could afford. It was the government that gave the unions the power to commit suicide. The federal government created tax laws that forced businesses to behave in an irrational manner and refuse to carry inventory.

What is really sad is that Maine people are very decent hard working people that deserve better, but they have chosen to trust in government and government has never served the people who put their trust in it. It is impossible because government can never create anything, it can only consume and take away. America itself is on the verge of economic collapse. Government always enslaves any society that believes it is a benevolent entity that seeks to act in the interests of its citizens. All the good intentions in the world are meaningless if they are destructive.

I left Maine in the hope that my absence might allow Northern Outdoors to escape the constant attempts to destroy it. It never made a difference. The industry itself has been in constant decline because of the misguided government regulation that serves no one.

The fall of Great Northern was caused by government laws and regulation. It was also caused by events beyond its control. They came under increased competition from companies that were located in milder climates and did not have to own 2 million acres of land in a cold harsh environment. It was also caused because Great Northern did not understand the winds of change that occurred during the 1960s. If they had compromised with the raft companies, Big A would have been built.

It is easy to use hindsight after the past has played out. I understand why they made the decisions they did at the time. I regret that my arguments were not persuasive enough at the time.

There were no winners over the Big A dam fight. Everyone paid a dear price.

I could tell you much more that happened during that time and after the fight, but they are only negative and destructive. It was conflict between the political left and right.

I can only hope that the great north wilderness of Maine is not gobbled up by government. I miss it very much and hate to think that it could be locked up in an unproductive manner, run by goody two shoes who see man as incompatible with wilderness.

Wayne Hockmeyer
June 22, 2010

Can you lend insight to Great Northern’s fall? We welcome your comments.


ellatorme said...

I grew up in East Millinocket and remember the glory days of Great Northern, when guys right out of high school were pulling in $60K -- big bucks back then -- and Millinocket/EMill were Bangor's biggest buyers. Even then, it seemed excessive.

My hope is that, with the new products being developed with wood composites, the North Woods can be the productive "tree farm" it once was . . . and that everyone involved realizes how important it is to keep an economic engine going.