New Baxter Park Trustees Face Challenges and Opportunities

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 9/18/03

Alec Giffen, Governor Baldacci, Buzz Caverly, Dan Martin (Photo by Phyllis Austin)

The waterside cabin known as The Lookout at Daicey Pond is the most popular shelter in Baxter State Park for one good reason: it has a large picture window that looks out squarely at majestic Katahdin. The log book kept by visitors reveals a passionate love of the view and of the park. But the cabin’s days are numbered.

The newly reconstituted Baxter Park Authority has approved the removal of The Lookout, also known as #10, and its sister cabin, #11. In their place, a single cabin will be built with room for six people – the same total capacity as the two cabins to be torn down. The new cabin will be placed about 20 feet back from the water’s edge but still have the same glorious view of 5,267-foot Katahdin.

The reasons for removing the two cabins are, in the case of #10, environmental, and, in the case of #11, deterioration. In fact, sill rot is easily seen at both cabins. However their demise will change the historic ambiance on Daicey Pond’s north shore and the memories of generations of visitors. Ed Garnier of Monmouth, who provided the current logbook, has had almost two decades "of feasting" on #10’s view. He wrote in 1999. " . . . it is truly my home away from home."

That "historic" element caused some members of the Authority’s advisory committee to question the cabins’ removal. But the Authority unanimously agreed to support the recommendation of its staff that the buildings be replaced and quickly ended a potential controversy in-house that might have encouraged outside public protest.

The three-member Authority is the park’s policymaking board created by park donor Percival P. Baxter in 1939. It includes the attorney general, the commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the director of the Maine Forest Service. Although it’s early in their tenures on the Authority, the current members seem thoughtful and not prone to stumbling unwittingly into controversy. They are keenly aware of public sensitivities over the state’s premier wilderness park and the history of past battles over the use of the area. They say they want to steer the park in the best direction with as little turmoil as possible. No donneybrooks – like the West Branch lands fight, for example.

"Man is born to die, his works are short lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, Wealth vanishes. But Katahdin in all its glory, Forever shall remain the Mountain of the People of Maine." - Percival Baxter

Whether they can have their way with removal of the two Daicey Pond camps without grumbling or challenge from the public remains to be seen. The park is about to send out a notice that cabins #10 and #11 will not be for rent during the 2004 season and that reservations for the new cabin will be taken starting Memorial Day of 2005.

Steve Rowe, the state’s attorney general and chairman of the Authority, has spent time in cabins #10 and #11 and knows first-hand why other users would want them both to stay put. "Any change ruffles some feathers," he said.

The decision about the cabins was made, however, "for logical reasons," Rowe said, "and we’re trying to improve conditions there." Alec Giffen, director of the Maine Forest Service, said that if the public is unhappy with the decision, the Authority is willing to listen.

But getting the trustees to reverse their decision appears to be a high hurdle, given the circumstances of the old cabins. Also, it is park director Buzz Caverly’s goal – and the trustees agree – to make sure that the only buildings in the park are those that are needed, in good condition and well-maintained.

Rowe took a leadership role in the Daicey Pond cabins matter by his support for Caverly’s recommendation and the manner in which he, as chairman, steered discussion at the park’s July meeting. By virtue of his two-and-a-half-year experience on the Authority and his knowledge of the park as a long-time camper, the other trustees look to Rowe for guidance at the moment. And as any trustee will attest, it takes time to get familiar with park issues and the park itself, especially given their demanding, fulltime jobs.

Alec Giffen and Dan Martin, the commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said they want to be well-informed about the park and visit as much as they can manage. Both were in Baxter Park on Sept. 11 with Gov. John Baldacci for the 100th anniversary celebration of Percival Baxter’s first visit to the Katahdin area, and their enjoyment of the occasion and their roles as trustees was apparent. Martin said, "when [you] go to the park you feel good when you’re there." But fairly quickly, the trustees were off to other commitments, not having time to spend the weekend. Rowe was unable to attend because of a prior commitment.

Director Caverly said that trustees increasingly have become more dependent on the park staff and the Authority’s advisory committee to provide information and direction due to the limits on their time and energy. This, he said, has been reflected in less debate on changes in fees, the reservation system, commercial use and removal of unneeded or deteriorated buildings – all issues the staff and advisory committee have been working on for some time.

Rowe believes that trustees "have a responsibility to go to the park from time to time. We can’t sit in Augusta all the time. It’s incumbent to visit and meet with park staff, and we need to do more [as trustees] than we do," he said. "It helps [in making park policy] to know the staff, the campgrounds, the trails so that when we hear a recommendation, we can visualize the situation" from knowing the park inside, Rowe said.

With the three-step fee increase approved by the former Authority and fully implemented by 2004, decisions on new reservations and commercial use policies will be in the hands of the new Authority. "No change is made for change’s sake," said Rowe. At the Authority’s Oct. 17 meeting, Caverly will offer recommendations on how to proceed with reservations to better insure the public with easier, equal opportunity for overnight accommodations.

When the trustees vote on a new reservation policy or any other matter, each of the three trustees said they will represent Baxter Park only -- not a constituency or special interest connected with their everyday jobs. In the past, some Authority members have been accused by environmentalists of disregarding the best interest of the park and voting their constituency’s position.

Dan Martin said he’s "very deliberate" at knowing which "hat" he’s wearing. "On that day and time when I’m acting as a member of the Authority, I represent the Authority, what is right for the Authority,’ he said. "I have no hidden agendas or grand schemes." Martin, also on the Atlantic Salmon Commission and the Land for Maine’s Future Board, characterized his style as "one where I listen in order to make my own judgment."

There are upwards of 400 people on the summit at times in the summer

As with any Authority, members take their seat as trustees with no experience in the park or years’ of camping and hiking in Baxter under their belt, with an unfulfilled dream of climbing Katahdin or memories of many hikes up the mountain – almost a rite of passage for Mainers. Alec Giffen became a fan of the park while in high school in the mid-60s and has climbed Katahdin and done the long south-to-north trek through the park's interior. But until recently, he had not been a park user for years and is excited about reacquainting himself with the area. A last minute change in schedule a few weeks ago gave him an opportunity to overnight in the park and to hike up Doubletop Mt. Steve Rowe and his wife have been park visitors for years.

Dan Martin of Augusta admits he has little user experience in the park and has never climbed Katahdin. He spent the last 30 years in administrative and management jobs and from 1987 until tapped by Gov. Baldacci was County Administrator for Aroostook County. He served in the Maine House of Representatives in 1975 and 1976 and the Maine Senate from 1977 to 1980.

As a northern Mainer originally from Caribou, Martin has known of the park all his life and has known Buzz Caverly for years. "I’m very proud and fond of our staff," he said, and he believes "Buzz’s heart is in this thing. I think Buzz Caverly is marching in the right direction. The tough decisions that Buzz and the authority have made in the past are the ones that needed to happen," Martin said. "I’d like to see the park look the same 100 years as it does today."

Alec Giffen of Chelsea has a strong background in land use and recreation planning. He worked in state government for 16 years, during which time he was director of the Land Use Regulation Commission and head of natural resources planning at the State Planning Office. Moving to the private sector, he founded an environmental consulting company -- Land and Water Associates -- specializing in management planning and conflict resolution.

Caverly’s plan would eventually convert Kidney Pond Camps from cabin facilities to lean-tos

Steve Rowe of Portland, a West Point graduate, was in the U. S. Army and U. S. Army Reserve before joining UNUMProvident Corp. as litigation counsel. He served in the Maine House from 1992 to 2000 and was Speaker of the House part of that time. He was elected attorney general by the Democratic-controlled legislature in 2000 and 2002.

Rowe said his time in Baxter Park as a camper has given him a foundation for understanding the preserve's unique situation. "I have an appreciation for this gift and the vision of Percival P. Baxter," he said. "My real interest is seeing that Baxter Park is well-managed and lives up to Percival Baxter’s wishes within the framework that [he] established." Rowe’s sentiments were generally reiterated by Giffen and Martin. "I come to this with an awareness that Baxter Park is a special landscape, a special place," said Giffen. Whatever the issues ahead of them, Dan Martin believes the Authority "will work as a team."

When asked if they anticipated taking "bold steps" to enhance the park’s wilderness character, the trustees were not aware of pressing new opportunities to do that. Likewise, Alec Giffin doesn’t see the park facing a crisis at the moment that would necessitate bold action.

Boldness may be in the eye of the beholder. Holly Dominie, president of Friends of Baxter State Park, believes there is an urgency to finally deal with the problems of increasing numbers of visitors, especially day users, and the attendant traffic, noise and environmental impacts. For example, she suggested that the Authority consider closing a portion of the main tote road in order to maintain and enhance the park’s wilderness character, develop a public transit bus system to reduce vehicle impacts and set limits on the number of climbers on Katahdin at any one time. (Estimates have upwards of 400 people on the summit at times in the summer.)

At its annual meeting in April, Friends of Baxter voted to urge the Authority to ban snowmobiles.

Dominie advocated long-range planning that would create greater wildness in the park and spare the Authority from reacting to problems that have or may surface. "Particularly where there is a need to set limits in certain places at certain times or overall day use," she said.

More than 100,000 visitors use the park annually, with most of them concentrated in the southern half of the park around Katahdin. Alec Giffen is particularly interested in the carrying capacity of the park and opportunities for "solitude and renewal."

Expansion of the park might qualify as a courageous move, given the West Branch furor over whether the lands would be designated as sanctuary for wildlife or open to hunting, trapping and vehicle access. Martin and Rowe said they would be open to discussing increasing the size of the park – with caveats.

"If the opportunity was right and the price were right," Martin said he would be interested. However, he pointed to current budget constraints. Rowe pointed out that Katahdin Lake and surrounding land "was at one time included in [Percival] Baxter’s vision" as part of the park. A 1921 map hanging on Buzz Caverly’s office wall attests to Baxter’s intent. Giffen had no position on expansion per se. "Every circumstance is based on its own merits," he said.

Townships on the park’s eastern border in the Katahdin Lake area have been sold recently by Irving Woodlands to two logging contractors. (See Phyllis Austin article) Some of the most valuable timber is near the boundary where Wassataquoik Stream flows out of the park toward the East Branch of the Penobscot River. Friends of Baxter is concerned about the uncertainty of the disposition and use of all lands surrounding the park. Hollie Dominie said that park needs a "good neighbor" buffer to sustain wildlife populations, such as bear and pine martin.

Snowmobiles are another issue that would meet the boldness test. It has been the park’s most contentious issue ever. At its annual meeting in April, Friends of Baxter voted to urge the Authority to ban snowmobiles. The machines are allowed only on the main tote road that runs along the western park border between the Togue Pond entrance at the south end to the Matagamon entrance at the north end.

Abuses of the park are occurring by snowmobilers and are of concern to the staff, according to Buzz Caverly. He will begin to make those violations known to the Authority when they occur, he said, in case revisting snowmobile use becomes needed.

At this point, the Authority is not interested in digging up the snowmobile issue. Dan Martin said he "wouldn’t want to regress" from current park policy but also couldn't envision supporting an expansion of snowsled use in the park. "I'm a snowmobiler," he noted, adding that his department promotes snowmobiling. Opponents of snowmobiles in the park would "have to do a lot of convincing" to get him to support a ban, he said.

The waterside cabin known as The Lookout at Daicey Pond is the most popular shelter in Baxter State Park for one good reason: it has a large picture window that looks out squarely at majestic Katahdin. (Photo by Phyllis Austin)

Buzz Caverly has put forth a "wilder from within" concept that would allow this Authority to make their mark in park history by taking steps to implement it. It would reduce motor vehicle access by closing major road segments and increase hiking and backpacking opportunities. Caverly’s plan would eventually convert Kidney Pond Camps from cabin facilities to lean-tos and continue to remove unessential or dilapidated structures. Holly Dominie’s suggestion of removing a section of the main tote road to deal with use and traffic pressures comes from that proposal. Rowe pointed out that no action has been taken on the concept by the previous authority or the current one.

"We share the vision of keeping the park wild," Rowe said. "As to specific changes, we are not ready to do this or that, but it is something that the authority should look at." . . . how to find that balance between wilderness and enjoying by citizens. "Reasonable minds could differ if we tip the balance one way or another," he said.

Dan Martin offered that the "wilder from within" idea "won’t go away" and that in general he is "a firm believer in Buzz’s vision, although we need to understand that the Authority is the Authority and Buzz is Buzz." Before any particular element of it is formally presented to the Authority, the trustees and the staff need to talk "at length," he said.

When discussing the "wilder from within" proposal with the previous Authority on March 14, 2002, Caverly acknowledged that it will take time to make the kind of changes he is recommending. " . . . whether it happens during my tenure as your director or if it happens in the next administration, we need to continually think about it, and I believe that ultimately in some aspect, if not entirely, bring it to a reality if our park is to endure," he said. If the new Authority wants to learn about it, Caverly said he is ready to meet with them.

On the matters of park access, the trustees agree in principle that reservations should be more accommodating, equitable and easier for the park staff to administer. Alec Giffen said he doesn’t "pretend to understand the particulars yet, but I really hope with my background in land management and recreational planning, I can contribute."

Rowe pointed out that the Percival Baxter’s Deeds of Trust state that the park is a place for recreation for people willing to walk. He doesn't think Baxter intended to be "discriminatory" but that restricting use is consistent with Baxter's vision. If visitor pressure turned Baxter into Yellowstone, "it would completely lose its wilderness character," Rowe said. "There are appropriate limits on use. At the same time, I think we have to make the park available to as many people as possible -- cabins, lean-tos and tents. I think the staff does a good job moving people around and letting the people enjoy the park."

The Authority members recognized that their tenure as trustees will be short in the life of the park and agreed they should act foremost as stewards.

Rowe agrees with having only the number of buildings in the park as are needed, and that goal, "along with the Spartan camping situations and roads as narrow as needed, are consistent with wilderness concept." Hollie Dominie of Friends said the long-term disposition of the camps at Daicey and Kidney Pond is a challenge of balancing wildness and the historic value and role in providing access for those who might not otherwise be able to be within "wilderness".

"If you look at the federal definition of what constitutes wilderness within natural forest and national parks, Baxter Park has some things that you don't expect to find [in federal wilderness areas], such as campgrounds," Rowe acknowledged. "In that sense, it is not wilderness but the best that Maine has." Most of the park, he pointed out, was logged, burned or roaded in the past.

"In Western wilderness areas, you would expect no organized campgrounds, cabins or roads," Rowe added. He pointed out too that the Great Gulf Wilderness in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Caribou/Speckled Wilderness Area section in western Maine do not have campgrounds and roads, but are smaller than Baxter Park. On the other hand, Baxter has the largest unroaded remote area in the state, Rowe said, referring to the Wassataquoik Lake region.

The Authority members recognized that their tenure as trustees will be short in the life of the park and agreed they should act foremost as stewards. Steve Rowe called himself "a blip on the screen" in park time. He said trustees need to keep their eye on the long-term impact of policymaking to "two, three or five generations from now." The challenge, he said, "is to leave the park at least as good as we found it."

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