April 07, 2020

Katahdin Lake: At what cost?

The recent media flap over Roxanne Quimby’s land purchase is sadly reminiscent of the Legislature’s inept deliberations over LD 2015 last spring involving the acquisition lands surrounding Katahdin Lake (KL) to expand Baxter Park. Instead of focusing on the relevant issue under its purview – the ill-advised fire sale of 7,800 acres of some of Maine’s finest forests, already owned by we, the people – the hearings degenerated into hard-ball politics over hunters’ rights vs. the legacy of Percival Baxter.

Had the hearings stayed focused, and had Maine’s environmental reporters truly investigated and reported candidly on this embarrassing chapter in Maine politics, more Maine citizens would have learned about the outstanding values of the lands the Department of Conservation (DOC) was offering up. Equally perplexing is the stance of George Smith of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Millinocket town fathers who, instead of asserting rights they don’t and won’t have, should have been adamantly opposed to the DOC giveaway of thousands of acres of critical deer habitat within a half-hour drive of Millinocket, managed skillfully for decades by the Bureau of Parks and Lands’ foresters and biologists.

As disappointed as I was about the outcome of LD2015, my purpose in writing is not to second-guess people’s motives, but to urge all players to reconsider the precedent they will set if this deal goes through. Invaluable long-term legacies of state stewardship are about to be sold to a logging contractor (the Gardner Land Co.), with little to show for it. We must find a way to keep these irreplaceable forestlands in state ownership, without sacrificing the noble goal of adding the KL parcel to Baxter Park. Fortunately, there is still time: the state’s lands have not yet been sold. Private fund-raising is at a virtual standstill, owing in no small part to the fact that potential donors find the dark sides of this deal unseemly. Good for them.

What should have happened – and what I believe Percival Baxter would have done – is a private transaction between the Gardner family (landowner of KL), the Trust for Public Land (TPL), which is financing this deal, and the Baxter State Park Authority. A deal is made behind the scenes, we all read about it in the paper – end of story. Offering up state lands to finance this deal makes no sense whatsoever. Contrary to the deceptive DOC FAQ sheet, these lands are not some idle wastelands awaiting disposal, but rather, comprise substantial tracts of valuable mature forests that complement the more aggressively harvested lands surrounding them. In their current state, they contribute immeasurably to recreational opportunities for rural residents, sustainable jobs in the forest products industry, ecological diversity, and income for the BPL.

Instead of capitulating to the Gardners’ understandable desire to own state lands, the DOC should have offered the Gardners long-term timber contracts of equivalent value, providing both forest-based jobs and exemplary stewardship under state ownership – not just the former. Why isn’t TPL simply buying additional private lands to swap to the Gardners? Because, as DOC spokesmen admitted before the legislative committee, there simply are no private lands for sale that are nearly as well-wooded as the state parcels, owing to the responsible, long-term management of the bureau.

Finally, let me address the great trump card that advocates of the KL deal have been fond of playing: “The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to complete Percival Baxter’s legacy.” These folks conveniently overlook the fact that Gov. Baxter clearly valued well-managed forests, like the BPL parcels considered for sale, as well as wild places.

As much as he sought to acquire Katahdin Lake, his writings and actions leave little doubt that he would detest the machinations surrounding this particular deal. If alive today, he would insist that ways be found to complete it without selling well-stewarded, scientifically managed and irreplaceable public lands.

By passing LD 2015, proponents have tacitly accepted that the end of acquiring KL justifies any means, however short-sighted and ill-conceived, and have thereby dishonored Baxter’s legacy, not respected it. If this deal is not renegotiated, acquisition of the Katahdin Lake parcel, rather than being a crowning achievement, will become a forever-tainted chapter in the history of Maine conservation.

Robert S. Seymour of Orono is the Curtis Hutchins Professor of Forest Resources, University of Maine School of Forest Resources. For 20 years, he served on the Baxter Park Scientific Forest Management Area Advisory Committee and the Silvicultural Advisory Committee to the Bureau of Public Lands. He can be contacted at Seymour@umenfa.maine.edu.

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