April 06, 2020

Respecting tradition

The Baxter State Park Authority will consider Tuesday whether traditional uses within a recent addition to the park should be continued or whether the 2,669 acres purchased last spring from Great Northern Paper should be held as sanctuary. The short answer is that Maine should continue to allow the traditional uses of hunting and trapping if for no other reason than it will need local support for future land purchases.

Just over 80 percent of the 200,000-acre park is a wildlife sanctuary. The addition, purchased from Great Northern for $490,000 in trust money left by Gov. Percival Baxter, has been open for hunting and trapping for as long as anyone can remember. Because no one officially said otherwise before the land was purchased, the people who live near there properly had an expectation that those uses would be respected. Certainly, the reaction of these residents would have been far different at the time of purchase if they knew the land was going to be posted against hunting and trapping.

This is, in part, a question of process. One of the reasons the unusually high percentage of private land has persisted in Maine is that the relationship between owner and resident largely has worked. The relationship is not perfect and has not always been in the best interest of man or nature. But it has largely worked. When the state in any form decides to intervene, it should do so cautiously. It should observe and respect the practices that have developed over the years on both sides.

There is a further question over vehicle access on this land, concerning two longtime camps on the property. This is a matter for the state to work out with leaseholders, but unless the leases say otherwise, the owner of the land — the state — has a responsibility to see that its tenants are able to gain access to their camps safely and in a reasonably painless way. If they need cars to get there, then maintenance of the roads and bridges will be required for as long as the leases exist.

The debate over use of this land is a good chance for the state to consider its methods for expanding or establishing parks. Several proposals that would set aside large pieces of Maine as either nondevelopment zones or outright parks have generated a lot of anger between supporters and opponents without producing much in the way of policy. Because of the requirements and money in the Baxter trust, the Great Northern purchase is unusual, but the values behind it are common to the purchase of all public lands. At the very least, the state should commit to telling residents before a purchase is made what sort of uses would be allowed on the land.

Park authority members will ask themselves what Percival Baxter would have done with the questions before them Tuesday. He was personally opposed to hunting and trapping and yet allowed it in some sections of the park. He was aware that local people played a special role in the park’s existence. It is impossible to know for certain what Gov. Baxter would decide under today’s circumstances. The best the authority members can do is use the power he gave them to follow their own consciences.

But they should also consider that the opportunity for Maine to purchase lands for public use will come up again and again, sometimes with voters being asked to approve bond issues to pay for them. Future support for these purchases will depend largely on the amount of trust state officials build with residents now.

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