Forest Fighter Award named for forester Wilkins, 100

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

By MEREDITH GOAD Blethen Maine Newspapers - Austin H. Wilkins, the 100-year-old icon of Maine forestry and a living link to Gov. Percival Baxter, today will become the first recipient of a new award named in his honor.

Gov. John Baldacci will present the inaugural Austin H. Wilkins Forest Stewardship Award to Wilkins himself during an afternoon ceremony at the Blaine House.

Wilkins, who served as the state forestry commissioner or deputy commissioner under 13 governors, led the fight to get the devastating statewide forest fires of 1947 under control, then developed new policies to ensure it would never happen again.

He was a close friend of Baxter, assisting in the creation of Baxter State Park and then serving as chairman of the Baxter State Park Authority for 13 years.

"I don't think there is a professional forester in Maine who wouldn't recognize his name," said David Field, chair of the department of forest management at the University of Maine.

The Wilkins award, sponsored by the Department of Conservation and the Maine Tree Foundation, recognizes an individual or organization that has made an extraordinary contribution to the -stewardship of Maine's forests.

Wilkins, who still lives in Augusta was a pioneer in developing the Maine Forest Service, which was later folded into the Maine Department of Conservation. One of his biggest achievements, foresters say, is the development of a northeastern forest fire compact that was the first of its kind.

At the time of the 1947 fires, which burned 220,000 acres, communication between towns was so lax there was no cooperation among firefighters trying to extinguish the blaze.

"You had a forest fire running 'across town boundaries, you stopped at your boundary," Field said. "That was the way it worked."

Wilkins' compact, which covered the six New England states, New York, New Brunswick and Quebec, improved fire surveillance and the way fires are fought in the region.

Wilkins was an eloquent speaker in his younger days, a talent that helped him negotiate such agreements and get along with 13 governors of all political persuasions, said Fred Knight, former dean of the College of Forestry at the University of Maine.

"He was almost an orator," Knight said. "His voice and diction were so beautiful that he could convince anybody about anything. He was revered. He's sort of an icon of the past."

Wilkins was born in Somerville, Mass. in 1903. He graduated from the University of Maine in 1926, then got a master's degree at Cornell University. He went to Europe to do graduate work in Germany, but before he returned he stopped in Paris to watch Charles Lindbergh finish his historic flight. Wilkins has always liked talking about the experience, especially to schoolchildren, his friends say.

He was appointed forestry commissioner by Gov. Edmund Muskie in 1958, and began the tradition of giving "state of the forest" reports to the Maine Legislature. In 1978, he wrote "Ten

Million Acres of Timber," a history of the Maine forestry district. He is also the author of a book about the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Gov. Baxter often sought Wilkins' advice on Baxter State Park's management, Knight said.

"Baxter, with Austin, was the one who set up that northern portion of the park as a forest management demonstration area," he said. "Baxter wanted to be sure that his park recognized that the northern Maine forests are working forests, and he wanted a demonstration forest as a part of that park."

Ron Lovaglio, former conservation commissioner who has known Wilkins for 25 years, said Wilkins often told the story of how Baxter would call him occasionally and say "Austin, let's go up to the peoples' park."

Wilkins was active in forestry even into his 90s, Lovaglio said. Lovaglio ran into him at a Maine Forest Products Council meeting in 1996, when Wilkins was 92.

When Lovaglio expressed surprise at seeing him, Wilkins told him, "Well, you know there's pretty interesting stuff being discussed, and I wanted to come up and listen to it."

"This content originally appeared as a copyrighted article in the Kennebec Journal and is used here with permission."