April 07, 2020

Baxter land decision eagerly awaited > Tuesday meeting to pit sportsmen, environmentalists

AUGUSTA — For months, sportsmen, hikers, environmentalists and others have hotly debated whether Baxter State Park’s new 2,669 acres should be managed as a wildlife sanctuary, or whether hunting, trapping and vehicle access should be allowed to continue.

The three-member Baxter Park Authority will decide this controversial issue when it meets at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Bolton Hill facility, which houses the Maine Forest Service and the Department of Conservation, in Augusta.

Park officials, members of the late Gov. Percival P. Baxter’s family, environmental groups, hikers and others who frequent the park say the new lands bought last spring from Great Northern Paper Co. should be added to the existing wildlife sanctuary in the park. The preserve makes up about 81 percent of the more than 200,000-acre park. Hunting, trapping and motor vehicle access are prohibited there.

Officials of a few sportsmen’s groups and many Millinocket area residents, however, say traditional uses on the newly purchased land, such as hunting, trapping and motor vehicle access, should continue because they were allowed for decades by the former landowner.

The authority will get a letter from the Millinocket Town Council, which last week unanimously approved an order supporting continued motor vehicle access, including for snowmobiles, to the new lands and supporting traditional uses such as hunting, trapping, fishing and berrying.

“Much of the discussion has focused on traditional uses, or what is fair. However, it is beyond dispute that it is the intent of Gov. Baxter that should be paramount,” said Paul Stern, an assistant attorney general, in a recent 10-page memorandum to members of the park authority.

Baxter was the founder of the park, purchasing parcels of land over a 30-year period and donating them to the state of Maine. According to the park trust, the governor wanted the park to remain forever wild and for the enjoyment of the people of the state.

Stern told members of the park authority that at times their choices may be difficult and politically painful. As trustees of the park, however, the authority has the obligation, duty and responsibility to comport their decisions with the late Baxter’s trust and not with the general policy of the state.

In the memo, Stern didn’t tell members of the authority how they should vote on the new lands issue, but pointed to Baxter’s written statements in an attempt to resolve the current controversy about what uses the governor would have wanted for the new lands.

Regarding the issue of hunting and trapping, Stern says the history of Baxter’s actions revealed that sanctuary restrictions were generally the rule, with hunting allowed only when it was necessary in order to purchase additional lands, or when the hunting boundary lines were confusing and prohibitions would adversely affect the livelihood of local guides.

Stern said the new parklands, located in Township 2 Range 10, are not part of the scientific forestry management area of the park, and other situations are not present. “Bowater did not make as a condition of sale the continuation of hunting or any other particular activities,” he stated.

Regarding road access, Stern outlined statements made by Baxter. In 1948, the governor said access roads could be built in the park on the condition they not interfere with the park’s natural wild state. A few years later, Baxter donated half of the cost of constructing a road linking the northern and southern portions of the park.

“With the construction of this connecting link there should be no further roads needed in the park,” Baxter stated in an April 1951 letter to Maine’s governor. In 1966, Baxter approved building a tote road from Togue Pond to Abol Campground Road.

Park Director Irvin “Buzz” Caverly Jr. recommends the new land be part of the park’s existing wildlife sanctuary and that the park authority authorize him and members of its advisory committee and park staff to develop a management plan.

The plan would include:

Constructing a footbridge across Katahdin Stream and removing the Abol Stream bridge as soon as it’s unsafe for vehicle traffic, and replacing it with a footbridge.

Constructing a lean-to camping facility on the southeast shore of Foss Knowlton Pond, to be rented using existing park standards.

Constructing a day-use picnic shelter and facility be constructed near the trail landing at Foss Knowlton Pond, and constructing two lean-to facilities for overnight camping in the vicinity of where Nesowadnehunk Stream enters the Penobscot River.

Develop and maintain trails, one to Foss Knowlton Pond and to other areas on the land accommodating the interests of sightseers, berry pickers, fishermen and other activities involving foot travel.

Within current policy, consider snowmobile use only for the two camp owners and their immediate families, who have leased camps on the newly purchased land, for supply and resupply of their facilities.

And, provide routine patrols by park staff to assure appropriate registration, no illegal camping and educational information to users.

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