By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 1/15/03
AUGUSTA – By unanimous vote, the Baxter Park Authority approved a policy revision on Jan. 14 that will limit public vehicular access over roads in the Scientific Forest Management Area (SFMA). There had been little response from park users about the planned change.
The three authority members had already indicated their support for changing the SFMA management plan. From now on, recreational drive-in access will be restricted to the two major trunk roads – the Braley Ridge and Wadleigh Mountain roads that run above and below Webster Lake and Stream, respectively. The road segments total 17 miles.
For a time, about 35 miles of road built for logging operations in the SFMA had been used by the public, especially during hunting season. Authority members Tom Doak, head of the Maine Forest Service, and Lee Perry, commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, were concerned about how people would view the final decision on access.
Doak wanted the wording of the policy to send a positive message and asked that it say that motor access to the SFMA will be permanently provided by the Wadleigh and Braley roads. Perry commented there will be "a public benefit" by committing to keeping open the trunk line roads.
SFMA manager Jensen Bissell reminded the authority that there may be circumstances that could require the closing of all SFMA roads, such as high forest fire danger, major blowdowns or flood damage. Overall, he felt the altered policy was "a little more restrictive" than before.
Since the last authority meeting in October, Bissell had overseen an effort to make park users aware of the access policy proposal, in case they wanted to comment. A copy of the revision was made available at the park gates and posted on the park’s web site. "We didn’t get an overwhelming response," Bissell said. Several hundred contacts were made, he said, but there were only a half dozen responses. "They were a little mixed," Bissell said, with only one person dead set against a change.
Bissell reiterated that the reason for rewriting SFMA policy was to make the vehicle access policy consistent with park donor and former governor Percival Baxter’s intentions and provide the public an opportunity to view forest practices in the SFMA.
The SFMA is a 29,535-acre section in the park’s northwest corner where sustainable timber harvesting occurs. Gov. Baxter, who died in 1969, directed that the SFMA be established to educate the public about "scientific forestry" of the kind he had seen practiced in Europe.
The SFMA was designated in 1955 but Baxter’s desires for the area didn’t receive management priority until the 80s. Since work began there, about 70 miles of roads have been built to access the timber resource. The total mileage in the SFMA is anticipated to be 85 to 90 miles.
In 2001, about 50 percent of the road network was blocked to vehicles in response to concerns of safety, fire danger and natural resource protection, Bissell said. But closing roads was not in accordance with the management plan, and thus the policy revision was needed to cure the inconsistency.
The park staff researched Gov. Baxter’s deeds of trust and communications and found that the wording on roads and vehicle access within the SFMA was unspecific, unclear or absent. "It is unclear whether Baxter ever envisioned a network of forest management roads as part of the SFMA," Bissell said, noting that when the area was designated in 1955, water was the principal transport system in Maine for timber and pulp.
"Baxter’s statement regarding roads in the park indicate a distinct bias against vehicular access as a method of accessing park resources," Bissell said. "There is a general consensus that, although Baxter wanted the people of Maine to be able to access the SFMA to view forest management activities, full vehicular access to all SFMA roads for recreational purposes is neither necessary nor consistent with the donor’s wishes."
Damage or resource abuse from vehicles hasn’t been an issue to date in the SFMA, Bissell said, "although effects on wildlife are difficult to determine. Subjectively, it seems clear to use as managers that vehicle access has an effect on hunting and trapping pressure on the SFMA," he said.
In 2001, when half of the SFMA roads were closed off, there was no known negative feedback from the public, Bissell reported. Large areas behind the barriers were used by hunters. In other sections of the park where hunting is allowed, he pointed out that motorized access is banned or very limited.
Under the revised policy, roads can be blocked with rocks, logs or gates, while allowing for administrative access for forest management activities. For public safety reasons, all winter roads and roads with an unsafe bridge, stream crossing or any other hazardous impediment will be closed to vehicle access. Areas around active logging operations, road construction and forest stand treatment operations will be closed as well, and no-hunting zones will be posted.
For wildlife and habitat protection, new roads one year from construction date will be blocked to motorized access. Any areas of soft roads or high erosion sensitivity will be shut off, as will roads directly accessing unique, threatened, sensitive or rare habitats.
In all of the 204,733-acre park, 0.17 percent of the surface area is in roads, according to Bissell. The SFMA eventually will be about 2.5 percent roaded if all management roads are included. The 17 miles of road permanently open to visitor traffic is about 0.38 percent or about twice the percentage of roaded area in the park exclusive of the SFMA.
In other business, the authority was advised by a subcommittee of progress being made on a revised commercial and group use policy. The authority also learned of a 100th year celebration being planned by Friends of Baxter State Park, an independent park advocacy organization.
Gov. Baxter first visited the park with his father on a fishing trip to Kidney Pond in the spring of 1903. The group wants to collaborate with park officials to commemorate that visit "to plant the seeds for those who will accomplish great things in wilderness preservation over the next 100 years," said president Holly Dominie. Baxter’s initial trip "may have been the inspiration for him to" create the park, she said.
Friends is also looking at other options -- an essay contest for high school students on the importance of wilderness, a youth trails maintenance day and a major forum on wilderness preservation issues in today’s times and how they apply to the park.
Baxter Park Authority website on the SFMA. More information on the Scientific Forest Management Area in Baxter State Park.