April 08, 2020

Katahdin land deal rift persists Fundraisers at $10.4M of $14M goal as deadline looms

It’s been six months since state lawmakers approved a complex deal for Katahdin Lake, but the political wrangling over this so-called “deal of a lifetime” shows no signs of abating.

Supporters continue to make slow but steady progress in raising the $14 million needed to complete the agreement.

However, recent news about Roxanne Quimby buying adjacent land and about a no-bid state contract being awarded to the Katahdin land’s current owner has merely fueled the ire of opponents of the deal, including the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the Maine Snowmobile Association and some Millinocket-area elected officials.

Yet polls indicate strong public support for the Katahdin land swap, which would expand Baxter State Park by 4,000 acres and add another 2,000 acres of state land.

With the controversy still raging, at least in some circles, Katahdin supporters are accusing critics of once again spitefully attempting to scuttle a conservation deal that they say most Mainers want.

“This has been a lot of hard work, and a lot of unnecessary roadblocks have been put up in front of it,” said Maine Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan.

The most recent point of contention emerged last week.

Critics of the deal, already unnerved by Quimby’s purchase of another 23,000 acres just south of Katahdin Lake, reacted with suspicion to news that the state awarded Gardner Land Co. a no-bid contract to cut more than 20,000 cords of wood on public land in Washington County.

Under the Katahdin Lake deal, Lincoln-based Gardner Land Co. is slated to receive more than 21,000 acres of timberland – including 7,400 acres of state-owned “public lots” – for the 6,015-acre lake parcel. No money will change hands, but the well-managed public lots are rich in valuable timber.The southern 4,000 acres would be added to Baxter and run as a wilderness preserve allowing hiking, fishing and other recreation but not hunting or snowmobiling. The northern 2,000 acres would be open to all uses.

The deal was designed to protect the lake property, which offers unsurpassed views of Maine’s highest peak, while helping the Gardner family keep its logging crews and mills working.

But fundraising has gone slower than expected in part because of the political firefight in the Legislature, which had to approve that part of the agreement that involved the public woodlots. As a result, the Gardner crews have been unable to access trees the company expected to gain in the deal, Tom Gardner said this week.

After some negotiations, state officials agreed to a contract allowing the Gardners to harvest between 22,000 and 25,000 cords of wood on the state’s Duck Lake public reserve land. Under the contract, the Gardners would pay the state an estimated $440,000 over several years for the timber.

In return, the Gardners agreed to extend the deadline for the Katahdin Lake deal until December.

Dave Soucy, director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, said the contract was based on fair-market value of the wood and that the Gardners have a long-standing relationship with the state.

The state already had prepared a cutting plan, or prescription, for the land. And while most harvesting contracts are bid out, no-bid contracts are used periodically in special circumstances, Soucy said.

“It was done by the book,” Soucy said. “What it did was keep the Gardners’ machinery and men going on the land pending the transfer in December. It served the state. It served the Gardners, and it extended the [Katahdin Lake] contract.”

Critics have seized on the no-bid contract in their continuing campaign against the deal, however.

“How much are they prepared to give away every time they need an extension?” asked Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, which opposes closing to snowmobilers the 4,000 acres being added to Baxter.

“None of this seems unusual to them [state officials], and that’s what makes this deal even more disturbing,” he said.

Sen. Paul Davis, the Senate Republican leader from Sangerville, said he was surprised by the no-bid contract but has requested copies of all the paperwork to decide for himself. But Davis, one of the most vocal opponents of the land swap, said he opposed extensions in general.

“There were some of us in the Legislature who believe there should have been a date … where if they did not get the money, then that should have been the end of that,” Davis said.

The campaign to raise private money for the Katahdin land swap, meanwhile, is up against a Dec. 15 deadline that the Gardner family appears unlikely to extend again.

As of last week, fundraisers had received cash or pledges totaling $10.4 million toward the $14 million goal, according to Sam Hodder, senior project manager for The Trust for Public Land. TPL, a nonprofit conservation group, negotiated with the Gardners to acquire the property for the state.

Hodder said nearly a dozen artists have contributed or promised to contribute artwork depicting Katahdin Lake to the fundraising campaign. TPL also is mailing out solicitations to Baxter State Park users and continuing to take potential donors to the site.

“This is something that the people of Maine are really standing behind,” Hodder said.

A recent poll indicates that many Mainers are, indeed, supportive of both the effort to protect Katahdin Lake from development and the legislative compromise.

Fifty-five percent of the 500 people polled for Portland-based Savvy Inc. described the lake deal as a positive move for Maine. Only 19 percent described the deal as negative with 26 percent undecided.

Exactly 50 percent said they supported the compromise deal, which added 4,000 acres of restricted-use “wilderness” to Baxter while leaving 2,000 acres to the north of the lake open to hunting, snowmobiling and ATVs.

But 21 percent said they believed the entire 6,015 acres should have remained open to traditional uses, compared with 18 percent who would have preferred to treat it as a sanctuary.

The poll results may bolster those who contend that the views of the Sportman’s Alliance of Maine and other groups do not represent the views of most Mainers – or even most sportsmen.

Jon Lund is among those who question the anti-Katahdin Lake campaign. A former Maine attorney general and member of the Baxter State Park Authority, Lund is now publisher of the popular monthly publication The Maine Sportsman, which bills itself as “New England’s largest circulation outdoor publication.”

Lund said he does not believe opponents’ positions on Katahdin Lake – and more specifically SAM executive director George Smith’s intense lobbying against the deal – was representative of the broad cross-section of Maine sportsmen. Smith could not be reached for comment.

Lund said many sportsmen enjoy the other activities that will be allowed on the lake property, such as hiking and fishing.

“They seem to have carried their access concerns to a point where they have lost sight of more important things,” Lund said.

The DOC’s McGowan said he would offer no apologies for working out a deal that both conserves land and helps support a family-owned timber company with a few hundred employees as well as the local economy.

“I don’t know why this effort to kill the project continuously goes forward,” McGowan said.

Not surprisingly, Davis sees the debate differently.

“It’s a controversy because they want to deny the people who have always used the property the right to use it,” he said.

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