Just a few weeks after these votes pass, both former towns will become part of Maine’s unorganized territory. This is a vast region, with a land area larger than Maryland, but with a population of just around 8,000 people. Consider that Portland’s average population density is over 3,000 people per square mile, and it quickly becomes clear that trying to maintain even a skeletal municipal government in the most rural areas of Maine becomes costly. As the industries that created these communities in the first place (lumbering mostly) shrink and become less locally based, many of our smallest towns are simply fading out of existence. I’ve not found exact statistics, but it appears that at least half a dozen Maine townships have deorganized in recent years, ceding their self-government, and becoming mere names on a map, just wide spots on rural roads. Later this month, the municipalities of Oxbow and Cary Plantation, both in Aroostook County, will join that list.
We often hear that Maine has the oldest population in the nation, and deorganizations like this directly illustrate the problem. My office mate, the walking history book known as Representative John Martin, notes that “there’s just nobody left in these places except for few elderly folks. No students, no jobs.” And while it’s not likely that any policy change will reverse this trend for Oxbow and Cary, shifts like these point up the need to keep our population growing and our young people in Maine. This is a tall order, but it’s going to involve for starters, proper funding of public education at all levels, encouragement of diversity and immigration, and extensions of some of the business development efforts that have helped make greater Portland and Bangor the engines for whole regions. In my estimation, our aging population is the number one challenge facing Maine. And if we fail to find a way to change that, the consequences are serious—whether in a deepening inability for Maine businesses to find workers, or in a shrinking tax base, or even in our state losing national clout in going from two to just one representatives in the US Congress, a likely outcome of the next census, if current trends persist.
So as we say farewell to Oxbow and Cary—and it will be a quiet farewell—I’d like to raise a toast before I press the button. Alas, that’s not permitted in the Maine House, so instead, I’ll urge you to see this not as something happening to a few folks up near Canada, but as something happening to all of us across Maine, something in which we all have a stake and of which we should all take notice.