The Bigelow Hut-And-Trail System: Money And Politics

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 11/14/02

The 12-mile, west-to-east Bigelow Mountain Range near Stratton features Maine’s second highest peak and a significant alpine area.

For the ambitious hut-and-trail system that involves the Bigelow Preserve, it’s not just about location, location, location. It’s about money too. Western Mountains Foundation (WMF) projects the total development cost of 12 huts and an 180-miles trail at $7 million-plus, and executive director Larry Warren says he has commitments for about $250,000 from various public and private sources so far.

By the end of the year, a major financial component may be in place – a $1 million loan guarantee from the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development division. It would serve as insurance for a million-dollar loan from the United Kingfield Bank that has already been committed to WMF’s Newry-to-Rockwood project. Alden Turner, senior loan specialist for the Rural Development office in Lewiston, says a decision on the federal guarantee is pending the completion of an environmental assessment due in about 30 days.

The town of Carrabassett has approved $30,000 in matching money for trail development, and Warren says that WMF will start drawing on those funds in January. Charitable foundations have contributed about $50,000 to date, he reported on Nov. 12, and local building contractor Clem Begin has given $50,000. Warren said that WMF is scouting for other sources of funds, mostly from private entities.

The financial capability of WMF is a key element in obtaining approval of the project from the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), which is ready to move debate ahead. At its Nov. 13 meeting the commission set a public hearing, tentatively scheduled for February 12, as recommended by its staff. Warren supported a public hearing, as did Friends of Bigelow and the Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC).

"The huts seem to be capitalizing on the preserve," said Friends’ chairman Richard Fecteau of Farmington, "it’s really a commercial development scheme hiding behind a non-profit [entity]."

The Bigelow Preserve would be connected to two of the WMF huts by new side trails, and the plan has stirred opposition by the Friends group, formed in 1974 to champion protection of the mountain range. "The huts seem to be capitalizing on the preserve, said Friends’ chairman Richard Fecteau of Farmington. "It’s really a commercial development scheme hiding behind a non-profit [entity]." Friends say the planned eight miles of groomed ski and snowmobile trails through the preserve would be inappropriate -- and violate the state statute creating the 40,000-acre public reserved unit.

The 12-mile, west-to-east Bigelow Mountain Range near Stratton features Maine’s second highest peak and a significant alpine area. It contains the state’s largest ecological reserve, and the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) runs over the rugged multi-peak ridgeline. Bigelow was slated for private resort development as "the Aspen of the East" in the mid-70s, but Friends organized opposition. A citizens’ petition led to a statewide referendum in June 1976 that directed the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands to acquire the mountain range for the public. (For more on the creation of the Bigelow Preserve, see article from the Portland Phoenix, June 7, 2001.)

An attempt to amend the preserve’s enabling act could be attempted by WMF in the upcoming legislative session, and some observers are anticipating that Bigelow may turn into a lengthy controversy like the on-going Allagash Wilderness Waterway debate. Deputy attorney general Jeff Pidot has offered an opinion that the act "is not sufficiently clear enough" to allow groomed trails in Bigelow, according to Tom Morrison, director of BPL. Consequently, a bill may be offered to pave the way for groomed trails, he explained. Larry Warren said that a decision by WFM on whether to introduce legislation wouldn’t be made until it’s known who will head the Department of Conservation under Gov.-elect John Baldacci.

WMF, formed in 1976 as a community development corporation for Kingfield, Carrabassett and Eustis, submitted an application for phase one of the hut-and-trail project to LURC last July. Larry Warren, who once ran the Sugarloaf Mt. resort, initiated the hut-and-trail project to try to stimulate the economy of the western mountains region. He was inspired by the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) huts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and the 10th Mountain Division huts in Colorado. He said that AMC’s Pinkham Notch facilities contribute $70 million to the towns around it and also adds $300 million to the state’s economy.

The LURC application asks for a permit to build the first $450,000 lodge on a peninsula on the east shore of Flagstaff Lake and about 250 feet from Bigelow’s border. The facility (a prototype for the other lodges) would house up to 40 or 45 guests and four staff and be limited to use by those engaged in non-motorized, primitive recreation, such as hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, kayaking and mountain biking. Also part of the pending application is associated ancillary development, including a proposed parking area off Long Falls Dam Road and a temporary construction access road to the proposed building site.

Larry Warren, who once ran the Sugarloaf Mt. resort, initiated the hut-and-trail project to try to stimulate the economy of the western mountains region.

LURC is reviewing the application as a commercial sporting camp operation. The proposal is located within an accessible lake protection subdistrict where commercial sporting camp operations, with up to 8,000 square feet of floor area for the main buildings, are allowed use by special exception. Flagstaff Lake is rated by LURC as a Management Class 2 lake (accessible, undeveloped, high-value).

Friends of Bigelow and MATC have petitioned for intervenor status in the LURC proceedings. They want the commission to review the project in its entirety, not just one lodge location at a time. MATC is not officially an opponent. Its executive committee voted simply to not partner WMF in the project. The AMC also has not taken sides but has pointed out concerns, such as groomed ski trails. Spokeswoman Gabrielle Kissinger has questioned the wisdom of making major changes to the original act creating the preserve and, subsequently, to the 10-year management plan when the management document is long overdue for revision.

In an Oct. 15 letter to LURC, Friends’ spokesman Fecteau raised an issue with the proposed Flagstaff hut site. He contended that it’s uncertain whether Central Maine Power Co. [CMP} can legally grant a lease of the land to WMF. The Bigelow act directed the Department of Conservation to acquire "generally all land in Wyman and North One-Half township north of Stratton Brook and Stratton brook Pond, and all land in Dead River township south and east of the lake," Fecteau said. "This description includes the CMP land leased to the foundation. The preserve management plan addresses private lots contained within the preserve boundaries by noting, ‘There is always the potential that a significant conflict between the private owners and the Preserve management could arise. If it does, BPL will consider ways of resolving such conflicts, including acquisition of the outstanding interests.’"

Fecteau said that 85 percent of the written comment that the Department of Conservation (DOC) received as the result of last winter’s meeting on the WMF’s proposal was opposed to the project, "yet the DOC [which oversees BPL] continues to spend thousands of dollars worth of staff time on this ill-fated scheme." We do not believe that a commercial sporting camp, as defined by LURC, is compatible with the legislation that called for all land in Dead River Township to be acquired for the preserve and remain free from development," he said.

CMP owns 281 acres in Dead River Township, according to Fecteau, and WMF is seeking a lease of approximately 30 acres. Until the takeover of the utility by Energy East of New York, BPL and CMP had an agreement to purchase the land for the Bigelow Preserve, along with another 8,200 acres of CMP land. But CMP withdrew from the deal a couple of years ago.

The Public Advocate’s Office is trying to determine whether the CMP ratepayers actually own the land that CMP doesn’t use for power distribution, according to Fecteau. If it is found that the ratepayers paid for CMP’s excess lands, then the PUC will need to create a plan to return the value of these lands, he said. Since CMP’s right, title and interest to the land Warren intends to develop is not certain, Fecteau claimed, "We strongly suggest that LURC seek clarification of CMP title before proceeding with Warren's application."

Larry Warren said that the CMP site issues raised by Fecteau "don’t seem to impact us. We have valid interest in the property," he stated. Warren has a confidentiality agreement with CMP and couldn’t disclose details of the arrangement, he said. The CMP site has been cleared in recent months, according to Friends, and the area is flagged and soil test holes dug.

Western Mountains Foundation (WMF) projects the total development cost of 12 huts and an 180-miles trail at $7 million-plus.

Besides the Flagstaff Lake site, the other hut sites in phase one of the WMF project are on the Carrabassett River off the Caribou Pond Road and on a hill top owned by the Carrabassett Valley Sanitary District near the southern boundary of the preserve.

Warren said that WMF has negotiated the purchase of a 30-acre hut site on the river from Plum Creek Timber Co., as well as a conservation easement of three miles along the waterway. The other hut site (50-acres) is under lease from the Sanitary District, as well as a trail corridor. This site, like the one at Flagstaff Lake, abuts the preserve and would have trails going into the state land.

"Our focus has been on the three hut sites and their connectivity and the details of that," said Warren. "We recognize we have work to go on [the project] north and south from [the Bigelow area]. We continue to explore with landowners what we are doing and their receptivity."

Meanwhile, USDA’s Alden Turner said a year-long environmental assessment of the project is coming to an end. Such an assessment is required by law for all projects before loaning public money, he said. "We want to make sure we’re not adversely affecting the environment for the long-term." Several state and federal agencies and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission have been involved in the assessment, said Turner.

He called WMF’s application "unique" for Rural Development in terms of lodging facilities and location. But his office routine makes loans out of the Community Facilities fund for all kinds of buildings needed by non-profits, towns, associations and medical care-related entities. Turner said his office has received some letters from individuals opposing the use of Rural Development funds for the WMF project. After the environmental assessment recommendation is made, the public will have another chance to comment, he added.

"The time line [for developing the project] is pretty fluid right now," Warren said. "The LURC process will play itself out over the next few months, and will give us some better insight into what is realistic."

BPL’s Morrison said that no date has been set for a meeting of the preserve’s advisory committee but that the bureau won’t make a decision about a trail before the panel has discussed the matter.