Storm Over Katahdin Lake
It was supposed to be a slam dunk. Early this year a bill was introduced in the Maine legislature that would have realized Governor Percival Baxter's long-delayed dream of adding Katahdin Lake to Baxter State Park. Located just outside the park's eastern boundary, the seven-hundred-acre lake sits in stunning isolation, surrounded by wilderness and offering a view of its namesake mountain so spectacular that artists and photographers have been drawn to its shores for more than a century. The bill would allow the sale of public land to help finance the purchase of the lake and 6,015 acres of forestland, and almost no one expected a problem.
"Including me," admits Representative John Piotti, the Unity Democrat who cochairs the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry that received the bill. "People thought it would be simple."
"We thought it was a triple win," insists Patrick McGowan, commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation and the target of a good bit of criticism over the deal. Even weeks later, with a vacation in Key West behind him, the usually reserved McGowan still spoke with machine-gun diction and voice-raising vehemence about the experience. "We thought Baxter Park, Millinocket, and the people of Maine all were winners. We couldn't understand why people were against it. It was bizarre."
The bill turned into one of the most contentious pieces of legislation of the year, with results that could echo through November's elections and well into the future. Only in retrospect are many people realizing that it marks a turning point of sorts in the relationship among the people of northern Maine, state government, the outdoors community, environmental organizations, and the future of land conservation efforts in Maine. Unwillingly linked with a bill that dramatically changed the management philosophy of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Katahdin Lake may also be seen as the victim of some serious muscle flexing by a coalition first brought together by last year's bear-baiting referendum.
And the entire issue has led to a new catch phrase that's being repeated often enough in some quarters to acquire capital letters: the North Country. In the continuing debate about the Two Maines, the North Country paradigm is emerging as a rallying point for Second Maine residents who feel that their heritage, concerns, and future are getting short shrift from an Augusta now almost completely dominated by the more populous, far more powerful south.
"Many people in the North Country feel their world is changing drastically and in ways they have no control over," offers Piotti. "Katahdin Lake became a symbol of that." Piotti says the bill's many supporters among the conservation community "didn't think about what was going on. From the beginning the signs were there that this likely would be a highly contentious issue. There were some surface issues, but more importantly there were a lot of undercurrents."
"A lot of people up here feel it's time to take a stand," declares Wallace Paul, a Millinocket town councilor. "You're going to be seeing more and more of these challenges to what we see as attempts by outside people to limit our options and our lives. So far we've been pretty much reacting to events, but someone is going to come along and organize this region. It's coming, and some folks better start noticing."
Three years ago, following a visit to Baxter State Park that marked the hundredth anniversary of Percival Baxter's first visit, Governor John Baldacci instructed McGowan to open negotiations with the Irving Corporation, then the land's owner, about acquiring Katahdin Lake. Those talks continued with the Gardner Land Company after it bought the property. (Incidentally, the Gardner family seems to be the only party involved in the affair to earn praise from all sides. "They were the straightest group of people I've worked with in all my career in government," McGowan says.)
The Gardners, longtime loggers and lumber mill operators in northern Maine, didn't want money. They wanted forestland that would allow them to continue their family business. The state and the Gardners hammered out a deal in which the state would sell 7,400 acres of public lots to the nonprofit Trust for Public Land for $14 million and add another 14,000 acres of privately owned land. The trust would give the acreage to Gardner in exchange for the Katahdin Lake land, which would become part of Baxter State Park.
The sale of state land requires approval by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature, thus the need for a bill approving the deal.
Last fall state officials presented the agreement to various outdoors organizations and Katahdin-area municipal officials and asked for their support. George Smith, executive director of the powerful Sportsman's Alliance of Maine (SAM); Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association; and the civic leaders of Millinocket and East Millinocket all say the same thing — they liked the plan, except for one major stumbling block. Following Governor Baxter's longstanding dictum that the park remain "forever wild," the deal specified that all 6,015 acres would come into the park as a wilderness preserve where hunting, trapping, and motorized access, including snowmobiles, would be banned.
"For us it was very simple," Meyers recalls. "Our directors were presented with the deal after the fact. We said we would support it if traditional uses were protected and oppose it if they were not. They weren't, so we opposed it."
"They made a terrible mistake in bringing forward a land-conservation project that excluded some users," Smith points out. Since 1997 some two million acres of land has been protected in Maine, Smith notes, and "in none of those cases has anybody been excluded. It hasn't been about who gets to use the property. That to me needs to be a different process." He also notes that Baxter himself showed flexibility on traditional uses, allowing some 51,000 acres at the north end of the park to remain open to hunting.
Smith suggests that the better strategy would have been to get the land under protection and then argue about who got to use it later. "In the last two purchases Baxter Park itself made, the authority voted to allow hunting and trapping to continue [in the new additions]," he argues. "So we had precedent to continue on the property. It was too bad because in the end the argument became more about who gets to use it than about the project itself."
The state and the park effectively waved a red flag in front of every sportsman's group in Maine and sent local governments into a panic at the prospect that even more land would be closed to the recreational uses that they increasingly depend on to fuel their economy. Several years ago the Millinocket area saw thousands of acres closed to traditional uses after their purchase by environmental activist Roxanne Quimby, who has made no secret of her support for a gigantic Maine Woods National Park, an idea vehemently opposed by most local residents.
"If it had not been for the proposed national park and Roxanne Quimby buying that land and eliminating access to it, this whole thing probably would never have shown up on anyone's radar," Millinocket's Paul explains. "Most people didn't care. But people up here sure did, because it looked like another attempt to manipulate this North Woods park forward."
In a moment of rare agreement, the town councils of Millinocket and East Millinocket both passed resolutions supporting the acquisition but opposing the access restrictions, claiming they would hurt hunting, trapping, ATV and snowmobile riding, and other tourist activities. The towns also sent representatives, including Wallace Paul, to testify at the bill's packed public hearing in Augusta.
Almost simultaneously, a bill that would permanently establish a series of vehicle access points and snowmobile crossings in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway was whipping up sentiment in the North Country. After decades of growing resentment over state mandates that limited public access to the river, Aroostook County residents had drawn their own line in the sand and had the enthusiastic support of powerful state Senator John Martin of Eagle Lake. The result was a storm that swept down out of the north and engulfed the legislature and the Baldacci administration.
It was painful to sit through the hearings on those bills and the work sessions," recalls Jym St. Pierre, a member of the Allagash Advisory Council and Maine director for RESTORE: The North Woods, the chief advocate for a new national park encompassing much of northern Maine. St. Pierre says he warned the Department of Conservation last year that the Katahdin Lake deal would not be easy because of the public lands component.
"They said they had no choice," he recalls. "I knew there would be trouble going to the legislature, although no one knew it would be this bad."
St. Pierre points to the formation of a new power bloc as a key element in the way legislative and public action on the two bills played out. "Late last year, SAM, the Maine Snowmobile Association, and the Forest Products Council of Maine came together in a way we hadn't seen before," he notes. "They held meetings in northern Maine, got people worked up. . . . Snowmobiling advocates got very aggressive. Landowners and people in the North Country began raising a ruckus."
The informal coalition dates back to last year's bear-baiting referendum, when outdoors interests throughout Maine organized around SAM and successfully defeated an attempt to ban hunting bears over bait or with dogs or traps. SAM's George Smith says the referendum showed Maine's outdoors community two things — that it could organize, raise money, and defeat powerful outside interests and that it was vulnerable. "Sportsmen all over the state found out that they really do have the ability to defend their heritage," Smith says. He and others also claim that the new assertiveness signals a loss of trust in government. "People are starting to think that the state agencies maybe aren't serving them the way they should," he offers. "I'm seeing less support around the state for the conservation partners initiative and the wilderness and backcountry efforts. People are starting to feel that maybe [conservation efforts don't] include them, starting to feel more threatened than I think they need to feel."
Reports of a secretive backcountry planning group made up of state officials and conservation organizations have only fed the feeling of threat. "There are forces at work inside and outside government that would prefer to create these [wilderness] areas and manage them without hunting and trapping and snowmobiling and ATVs," Smith insists.
In the end, the Katahdin Lake bill passed with a compromise that left two thousand acres in the northern end of the plot open to traditional uses while the lake and four thousand acres surrounding it remain a wilderness preserve. Almost everyone involved admits the compromise is an empty gesture — the northern section is almost inaccessible and lousy hunting territory anyway.
The Allagash bill also passed, thanks to what St. Pierre says was some unusually blunt arm-twisting. "There was a lot of jockeying to position the Allagash bill and Katahdin Lake," he explains. "The conservation community tried to get the Katahdin Lake issue settled first. Several legislators told us the legislature would vote on the Allagash bill first, and if the damned environmentalists didn't stop opposing the Allagash deal, they would kill Katahdin Lake. They made it clear they were going to hold Katahdin Lake hostage."
In retrospect, "the whole thing was a shame," says Meyers of the snowmobile association. "It never needed to happen this way. It ended up being more contentious than the Sunday hunting issue, and that one tore people apart."
But Meyers, Smith, and Paul all agree that Katahdin Lake may only be the first salvo, and long-range conservation efforts like the Land for Maine's Future program could be in the line of fire. "You're going to see us and a lot of other folks in the North Country taking a harder stand," Meyers explains. "We have to, even though we don't want to. God knows none of us likes to go out and pick a fight. But we see these outside forces dictating something pretty significant without including residents or traditional users."
"I heard one legislator say that this [Katahdin Lake] deal by itself isn't bad," Piotti recalls, "but he sees it as a symptom of the future, and that is very bad. I don't think we saw that [attitude] coming."
Millinocket town councilor Paul says he is hearing a new determination throughout northern Maine, as well as a hardening of us-versus-them attitudes that he feels himself. "We're tired of being colored with this broad paintbrush as rednecks who shoot all the animals with our guns and tear up the countryside with our machines," he asserts. "The preservation of land is cultural for us. But what we're hearing the other side say is 'We want preservation, too, but with you gone.' Well, we're staying. Get used to it."