By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 5/30/03
Wilderness advocate and businessman Charles FitzGerald has acquired Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps bordering the southeast side of Baxter State Park. Now, he is positioning himself to join a conservation effort to acquire the East Branch lands being sold by Irving Woodlands. FitzGerald is particularly interested in protecting about 16,000 acres of forestlands around the lake and along Wassataquoik Stream because the area is relatively pristine and unroaded. "This could be a very important reserve," he says.
FitzGerald, who deals in real estate and manufactures and sells wood products, is known as a conservation risk-taker. Over the last 30 years, he has pieced together a 12,000-acre preserve in the Atkinson-Dover-Charleston area, with the help of others. At times, he paid inflated prices for parcels he determined needed protection and says he never regretted it. In the late 80s, he lost more than $1 million of his own money in an attempt to buy 61,000 acres of Diamond Occidental’s high value lands, including remote Nahmakanta township. (The state later acquired Nahmakanta, south of Baxter Park, and designated it an ecological reserve.)
FitzGerald made the decision to buy the Katahdin Lake camps sight unseen because of their history, backcountry setting and strategic position to Baxter Park. The purchase price of the facilities, on the lake’s sandy beachfront, was $395,000. The lakeshore provides some of the most spectacular views of Mt. Katahdin, as well as South Turner Mountain, and has attracted noted artists for over a century, among them Frederick Church and Marsden Hartley. The spring-fed lake waters shelter a favorite of fishermen – square-tailed trout.
FitzGerald did not buy land with the camps. The facilities are on 31 acres leased from Irving. The land is part of the 78,000 acres Irving has for sale on the East Branch of the Penobscot River. The company is also looking for a buyer for 43,000 acres in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway area.
Ralph Knoll, planning and land acquisition supervisor for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, confirms that the state and the Trust for Public Land are "having discussions with Irving to see what can be done to insure that most, if not all, these lands will end up in some form of land conservation." How much would be outright fee acquisition or conservation easement purchases is yet to be worked out.
Katahdin Lake camps will continue to be available for traditional public recreational uses, FitzGerald says. "I intend for the camps to remain remote and wild, just like they have been managed for many years" under the ownership of Al and Sue Cooper, he says. He praises the Coopers for their careful stewardship of the camps and says they will continue to provide the day-to-day management of the facilities in the near term.
FitzGerald wants foot access to continue through Baxter Park in order to avoid having to develop a new entry from a commercial logging road. The park has allowed free passage as a good neighbor. Camp guests use the Roaring Brook Road to reach Avalanche Field, park there and walk in three-and-a-half miles. The Coopers also have a building and store supplies on park property. They use horses and mules to transport supplies to the camps.
Last July, the park authority clarified the access status in the wake of questions raised by potential buyers of the camps. Then-authority chairman Lee Perry wrote Al Cooper that he had "no right or easement" guaranteeing access but only "an accommodation to you . . . a discretionary revocable license . . . not intended to grant your or any future owner any right or interest in park property. In respect to our arrangement with you, at this time we intend to continue, for the foreseeable future, to provide the same level of support as we have in the past," said Perry.
Upon learning recently that FitzGerald had purchased the camps, park director Buzz Caverly was "pleased to learn Charles has bought the camps. I think it means the camps’ wilderness characteristics will continue in fine tradition," he says. Caverly is well-acquainted with FitzGerald because of FitzGerald’s long involvement in Baxter Park issues, and FitzGerald has been a member of the advisory committee for the park’s Scientific Forest Management Area for many years..
Caverly has "concerns" over public access to the camps from the park. If the trail over park land continues to be used, Caverly says it needs to be brought up to park standards of quality and safety. He is optimistic that the park and FitzGerald can come "to a mutual agreement" over access.
Katahdin Lake Camps, in Township 3 Range 8 WELS, was originally developed by John Cushman in 1885. The facilities were rebuilt in 1930 by Oliver and Della Cobb, who owned them for 44 years. The Coopers took over the camps in 1975 from Sue Cooper’s parents, Embert and Josephine Stevens, and raised their three sons there.
The Coopers began working with a realtor a few years ago to sell the camps. Al Cooper says they talked to about 70 people and became frustrated trying to find someone who would keep the camps public and not change the traditional and low-impact nature of the camps. They decided to try to sell them on their own, and FitzGerald learned of the situation last fall by word-of-mouth.
Cooper and FitzGerald agree that they hit it off quickly, and the transfer of ownership went smoothly. "The camps are very precious to us," says Cooper, "and we believe we found the person who has the same vision we have had for the camps."
FitzGerald didn’t realize what opportunities exist for wildlands protection between Baxter Park and the East Branch until he got involved in purchasing the camps. Along the East Branch, Irving owns all of Township 5, Range 8 and Township 3 Range 8. Half of Township 4 Range 8 and Township 2 Range 8 is also owned by Irving and the other half by other timberland investors. The lands include miles of frontage on the East Branch and the lower Wassataquoik Stream as it flows out of Baxter Park to the Penobscot River.
BPL’s Knoll says the Wassataquoik area would be most appropriate for backcountry, non-motorized recreation and from that perspective "is the most appealing piece" of Irving’s lands. The other townships have had different levels of harvesting activity and road development, he says. Private donors will be an important part of protecting the East Branch lands. "The challenge will be to satisfy their objectives," he adds, referring to potential contributors with wilderness goals.
FitzGerald says park donor Percival Baxter and the late Supreme Court Justice and outdoorsman William O. Douglas provide continuing inspiration for his conservation initiatives. When he first visited the wilderness park, he was so enthralled that he began to study Baxter’s "forever wild" purpose for the park and his writings. "It awakened in me a wealth of interest and concern about setting aside wilderness," he says. "It was love at first sight. I felt immediate kinship of responsibility to act as a citizen and work with others for wilderness preservation."