The Katahdin compromise and our wilderness dilemma

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The recent struggle over the 6,000-acre Katahdin Lake area about to be annexed to one of America’s largest state parks – our own Baxter – renews a long-standing conflict over the appropriate use of our public lands. Though a compromise by which hunting and snowmobiling will be allowed in one part but not another has set the issue to rest for now, the question is an old one and certain to be visited again.

Even Gov. Baxter, whose far-sighted philanthropy gave us the rest of the 200,000 acres, had conflicting views during the half century of his own celebrated involvement. In l925, not long after the outset of his crusade to promote the acquisition of Katahdin by the state, Baxter railed against a plan by Great Northern, then a primary owner of Katahdin, to restrict hunting only to those who registered with it and were accompanied by licensed guides:

“The time never must come when the forest areas of Maine are made great private hunting preserves to be enjoyed only by the friends and sycophants of powerful interests. Such things savor of feudal times when the lords and barons of England claimed the sole right to fish and game on their great estates. Before our woods are closed to us the people will be heard from.”

The notion of opening up Katahdin to all Mainers for a variety of purposes came from a governor engaged in a quest to persuade the people of the state to use eminent domain to acquire Katahdin from one of America’s leading paper companies. But the people whom Baxter promised would “be heard from” were in fact largely apathetic. This public inertia driven also by Depression economics of the l930’s rendered Baxter’s expectations unrealistic and so he undertook personally to buy the land for the state.

When Baxter thus took matters into his own hands his views on public access seemed to change. The next phase in his outlook was in the period from l93l to l954 when over 75 percent of today’s Baxter State Park was incrementally bought by Baxter and then given to the state. At this time Baxter successfully conditioned acceptance of his gifts with the “forever wild” restrictions that also prohibited hunting, thus resulting in more restrictive use of the premises than that for which he had so roundly ridiculed Great Northern in the l920’s.

In this era a grateful Maine people easily acceded to Baxter’s restrictions as a small price to pay for his public spirited generosity. But by l954 the discontent of hunting interests in northern Maine that had been simmering for several years erupted into overt opposition to Baxter’s latest proposed expansion of the park. Backed by a petition bearing the names of 400 constituents, a member of the Governor’s Council voted against accepting a Baxter gift. In a debate that seemed to foreshadow similar views held by sportsmen’s interests of our own era, the councilor argued that the ban on hunting had impaired business at private camps and had hurt the area’s tax base. Though the rest of the Council approved the ban on hunting Baxter’s views would eventually soften on the issue and he later agreed to allow hunting in some areas of the park.

Our state’s conflict over what to do with public lands, as well as whether to even acquire them at all, is of course not confined to the Katahdin region. Take the case of Owen Mann, who like Baxter, was a life-long bachelor who lived into his 90’s. When in l959 his estate attempted to carry out his will’s directive by offering 200 acres of his farm on Farmington’s Porter Hill to the state, his philanthropy, unlike Baxter’s, was rebuffed. Even though the conditions imposed by Mann’s will – that hunting be banned – echoed Baxter’s, Maine’s Inland Fish and Game commissioner, the State Forestry Department, and the Legislature itself all turned down the bequest on the grounds that enforcing the restrictions so close to popular hunting areas would not be practical and would cost money to enforce.

To what extent a state-owned wilderness area should be opened to hunting is but one dimension of a policy confronting the larger question of what kind of use should be allowed near our mountain summits and other remote areas. How much road building, the type of timber management, whether to allow ATV’s and snowmobiles, are also recurring issues.

Our own Baxter Park, we are reminded by Sportsman’s Alliance Director George Smith, is in no danger of being overrun by tourists, it experiencing a decline of some 20,000 visitors over the last two decades. The desire to give more of us a chance to appreciate the region drove the Sportsman’s Alliance and Millinocket area leaders to insist that parts of the Katahdin Lake land be allocated for more popular purposes.

To be sure, few would suggest that anyplace in Baxter Park should be another Mt. Washington summit with its pizza, hot dogs, souvenir shops, cog railway and auto road. One thing about which few can complain at the Granite State’s own summit state park, however, is accessibility. Even for a quadriplegic ascending the auto road in a minivan, there is no barrier to the mountain named for our first president, though it is a thousand feet higher than Katahdin. Mt Washington is also the most easily reached opportunity most Mainers have of actually viewing our own state’s highest summit even if their feet are on New Hampshire soil at the time. The elitism about which Baxter warned us in l925 is not at risk in the world of “Live Free or Die,” though the New Hampshire style solution was not one that Baxter’s l925 polemic had in mind for our own Maine dilemma.

It is one that provokes our thinking as to how expansive or exclusionary our use of public lands should be and puts into perspective a question for which there will never be an enduring resolution.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@midmaine.com.

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