Katahdin Lake plan has promise, but swap, sportsmen threaten it


Legislation to acquire acreage around Katahdin Lake would sacrifice other valuable public land.

Seventy-five years ago Gov. Percival Baxter started the process that led to the current Baxter State Park. Over the course of 32 years, 200,000 acres were bought and donated to the people of Maine. His vision was clear: The park was “to be maintained primarily as a wilderness … which is to be forever wild.”

There is now before the Legislature a bill to acquire a piece long ago coveted by Gov. Baxter: the lands around Katahdin Lake. This 6,000-acre parcel lies just to the east of the current Baxter State Park boundary and includes the 700-acre lake and several miles of “pristine” Wassataquoik Stream, which flows off the flanks of Mt. Katahdin. Its thousands of forested acres include old-growth hardwood and woodlands supporting bear, moose, fisher and martin, as well as wetlands.

Percival Baxter coveted the area but could not acquire it in his lifetime. The parcel has been considered so desirable that for the first time the state has used private money to extend the acreage of the park, and it surely stands as one of the most expensive northern forest acquisitions.

Under the terms of the agreement the state will spend $14 million of privately donated money in order to acquire approximately 7,400 acres of land. This acreage will then be swapped with Gardiner Lands for the 6,000-acre Katahdin piece they own. The land the state is offering consists of 6,000 acres around Lincoln and 1,000 acres in Franklin County adjacent to the Bigelow preserve, called the Wyman parcel.

There are two troubling aspects to the proposed land deal. First, the Wyman piece is public land originally intended for inclusion in the Bigelow Preserve. We have precious little public land, among the least in the United States.

Instead of sacrificing Wyman, the state should acquire additional private lands to exchange.

Second, and more troubling, is the current assault being waged by some sporting groups on the terms of the deal itself.

When the land acquisition was presented to prospective donors, the plan was to manage the land like the rest of the park, forever wild, in keeping with Gov. Baxter’s vision. But if these groups have their say with the Legislature, the terms will be rewritten to allow hunting, trapping and motorized vehicles, all prohibited in the rest of the park. Western Maine Audubon feels very strongly that if accepted, these changes would compromise the deal beyond repair.

While this is a historic opportunity, we should not trade away public land to make this deal happen, and we should not bargain away Baxter’s principles and a precious public resource.

As I write this, the Legislature is reviewing the deal, which is now in serious jeopardy.

With the conservation terms in question, donations are frozen and donors may back out.

The sporting community is being shortsighted in its efforts. The entire parcel is .04 percent of the available hunting area in Maine, but, if bought privately, none will be available to anyone but the mortgage holders.

This land should be protected as part of Maine’s wild and natural heritage.

Steve Bien is president of the Western Maine Audubon Society. He lives in Livermore Falls.