Appalachian Mountain Club Purchases 36,691 acres in Hundred Mile Wilderness

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 12/9/03

The land is in the heart of the famed Hundred Mile Wilderness.
(Photo: Michael Roberts)

The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) has bought 36,691 acres in the heart of the famed Hundred Mile Wilderness to establish a Maine base of operations. The acquisition expands protection of the forested Moosehead-to-Baxter region that has been a major priority for conservationists in recent years.

The $14.2 million purchase is "transformative" for the 127-year-old club, according to Walter Graff, deputy director of the AMC. It represents the organization’s largest single investment ever in conservation and recreation and redefines the vision and goals of the venerable organization. Until now, the club has been primarily identified with its popular hut system in the White Mountains National Forest of New Hampshire and its long involvement in the protection and maintenance of the Appalachian Trail (A. T.).

The forestland now in AMC’s hands makes possible dreamed-for opportunities to protect a "treasure trove" of natural resources in the undeveloped valley of the West Branch of the Pleasant River, according to Graff. Its strategy for the property, called the "Maine Woods Initiative", is to integrate habitat protection, recreation, education and sustainable forestry. AMC will keep part of the land in timber production to support the local forest products economy. Its to-be-developed recreational facilities will provide for a diversity of outdoor experiences, increase access into the area and help create new nature-based tourism to the region.

The land, known as the Katahdin Iron Works (KI) property, was purchased from International Paper Co. (IP) in a transaction facilitated by the Trust for Public Land (TPL). Located 10 miles east of the town of Greenville on Moosehead Lake, the property includes most of Township 7 Range 9, the western part of Bowdoin College Grant East township and the eastern part of Bowdoin College Grant West township. It begins about 20 miles from the start of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the tough trail that starts where the A. T. crosses Maine Rts. 15 and 6 and ends at the summit of Katahdin in Baxter State Park.

The AMC tract includes all or part of Chairback Mt., Columbus Mt., Fourth Mountain and Third Mountain, Baker, Elephant and Indian mountains and is adjacent to the nationally protected Gulf Hagas, the deepest gorge in Maine. The National Park Service owns the A. T. corridor that runs over the Barren-Chairback range. The section of A. T. within the AMC property covers 10 miles. An additional 15 to 20 miles of the A. T. border the east side of the property near Gulf Hagas Mt. The property includes numerous remote ponds, some of them with genetically pure brook trout, and 300-acre Caribou Bog, the last place in Maine where woodland caribou were seen.

AMC will soon launch a new capital campaign to pay for the "Maine Woods Initiative." The $14.2 million was borrowed from Citizens Bank and the non-profit Open Space Institute under short-term agreements. Besides private donations, the organization will seek funds from federal and state land conservation programs. Its previous $33 million capital campaign to expand operations and fund the multi-million dollar Highland Center lodge in Crawford Notch, N. H., ended successfully two years ago.

AMC’s project will compliment Governor John Baldacci "Maine Woods Legacy" vision, which is focused on increasing protection of the Hundred Mile Wilderness and diversifying outdoor recreation and forest products businesses. "[The governor] is very excited" about the project, said Graff, because it "matches up" with what his administration is trying to accomplish.

(Photo: Michael Roberts)

John Simko, the town manager of Greenville who is an outspoken opponent of a proposed national park in the region, commended AMC for including local communities in its planning process. "Creating economic opportunity and maintaining traditional forms of recreation are extremely important to gateway communities in Piscataquis County," he said, referring to Greenville, Brownville and Milo.

"I have great hope and faith in the relationship the town has and is continuing to develop with AMC," he said. "No other organization has shown as much interest and support for our pressing issues." Piscataquis County has the second lowest per capita, as well as median income, in the state, at $18,225 and $29,520 respectively. It has the lowest population density per square mile. One of the most recent blows to the area economy was the closing of the Dexter Shoe plant in Milo.

Dave Lieser, IP’s regional manager for forest resources, commented that the company was pleased that AMC will continue "many of the traditional uses" of the property and believes "it will continue to be in excellent hands." IP sold the property, he noted, as part of its long-term strategy to divest several hundred thousand acres in Maine while retaining about a million acres for paper and wood manufacturing facilities in the state.

Concern was voiced about how much development will occur on the AMC land even before the club closed the deal with IP. Maine AMC chapter executive committee member Erin Woodsome, writing in the November-December issue of its newsletter, Wilderness Matters, questioned whether the envisioned level of development will compromise the wild character and natural features of the land. She said she feared that "mistakes made by AMC that contribute to overuse of the White Mountains" may be repeated in Maine.

For Woodsome, AMC’s construction of the Highland Center "is a red flag waving. AMC, historically committed to preservation and conservation, seems to have become more focused on developing itself as a recreation industry leader," she wrote. "The contradiction between preservation and development merits careful discussion."

Following an AMC forum last week to discuss the new Maine initiative, Woodsome was still worried about the size and appropriateness of the club’s development plans and wondered whether the Maine chapter will be allowed by "Joy Street" (the Boston headquarters of AMC) to have a meaningful role. So far, she said, requested information about the project has been withheld from the Maine chapter. And, the local club has not been allowed to be involved in a way that "we can make a difference," Woodsome said.

Bob Cummings, a leader of the MATC for years and former environmental reporter for the Portland newspapers, doesn’t believe there is serious dissent in the Maine chapter, and he doesn’t think "there’s any chance – philosophically or economically – that a Highland Center type facility" will be built on the new land. "We’d all rather the land remain wild and totally undeveloped," Cummings said, ". . . but that wouldn’t happen unless someone like Roxanne Quimby bought it." Quimby, co-founder and former owner of Burt’s Bees Inc., has acquired more than 40,000 acres of Maine forestland to set it aside for the national park proposed by the environmental group RESTORE: The North Woods.

"It would be presumptuous for there not to be concerns," responded Walter Graff. The questions raised by Woodsome "were good questions." It’s healthy for an organization to have differences of opinions, he added.

AMC trail crews built many early trails in the park and maintained the high-elevation shelter at Davis Pond on Katahdin’s northwest slope.
(Photo: David Metsky)

AMC has been a presence in Maine since 1876. Its members were the first to map Katahdin. AMC trail crews built many early trails in the park and maintained the high-elevation shelter at Davis Pond on Katahdin’s northwest slope. The club has been active in maintenance of the A. T. in Maine and has been active in numerous conservation efforts, such as the Tumbledown mountain range. It manages camps and campgrounds at Fryeburg, Georgetown, Georgetown Island and Mt. Desert Island. All are open to members and the public.

The AMC had been looking for a place to establish a significant presence in Maine for some time. At one point, the club was interested in Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps on the eastern border of Baxter State Park, as well as the East Branch/Penobscot lands of Irving Woodlands. Irving’s East Branch townships (71,000 acres) were sold recently in separate transactions to Roxanne Quimby and logging contractor/developers William T. Gardner & Sons and H. C. Haynes Inc.

The club was presented an opportunity to purchase Little Lyford Pond Camps, a traditional sporting camp near the West Branch of the Pleasant, and 300 acres, last summer. IP leased the land to Little Lyford camps. Since it was going to sell out, the company asked all of its lessees if they wanted to buy their rented lots, and the discussion over Little Lyford led to AMC’s considering a purchase of all of IP’s lands in the three townships.

The decision to move into Maine, Graff explained, came out of the work AMC has done with the Northern Forest Alliance for the last 10 years on how to protect wildlands, build strong local economies, and support sustainable forestry. "We decided to stop talking about it and do something," he said. The "Maine Woods Initiative" is what AMC hopes will be a model of how to reinvigorate struggling rural communities, protect natural resources and increase accessibility to the backcountry.

Little Lyford Pond Camps sits in the bowl of the area that AMC expects to designate a no-cut reserve of more than 10,000 acres. The camps, started in 1874, were owned previously by Bob and Arlene LeRoy, who had expected to operate them for years to come. The LeRoys’ plans changed unexpectedly, and they approached AMC over a year ago about buying the camps. The area seemed to fit AMC’s vision of where it might locate in Maine. For example, Greenville, Monson and Milo were more accessible than, for instance, the East Branch/Penobscot area. Discussions with IP led to a purchase-and-sale agreement in the fall. The $14.2 million price was just under $400 an acre – a price Graff said that AMC was "delighted" at getting. It was significantly less than the buyers of the East Branch/Penobscot lands paid.

AMC took possession of the Little Lyford camps in October and is putting on new roofs, installing a new gray water system and building a new kitchen. The camps will reopen for business on Dec. 15. Bob Leroy will oversee management of the camps, and a local couple will work with him.

Exactly how AMC will proceed on the large-scale remains to be seen, according to Graff. A management plan will be developed within the next year to determine which areas will be designated for conservation, recreation, forestry or multiple use. But already, AMC has determined it will build about 50 miles of new hiking trails. One of the trails will go to the summit of Indian Mt. where there’s a superb view of Katahdin, said Graff. Each mile of trail is expected to cost about $10,000.

The big question that goes to the heart of Erin Woodsome’s concerns is the development of overnight facilities. Campsites, shelters and full-service facilities with beds and meals will be provided – the latter so that "families can travel lightly", Graff said. How many cabins or lodges will be constructed is to be determined, but he said they will be within a day’s hike of each other.

Besides hiking, fishing, paddling, skiing and snowshoeing, the land will be open for traditional hunting and trapping, at least in the near term. Graff said that more discussion is needed about whether to allow trapping over the long-term. Snowmobiling will continue, and ATVs will remain banned, as they are now under the KI/Jo Mary management.

AMC will seek a stronger green certification for the "working forest" portion of its land than IP had. (The industry-created Sustainable Forestry Initiative was the standard used by IP.) Graff said that the land had been "worked over" by IP but had more wood remaining than the neighboring land sold by Hancock Timber Resources to the Carrier Brothers, a log contracting firm. AMC plans to continue membership in the KI/Jo Mary Multiple Use Forest Inc. entity to manage public access in the short-term.

Now that the AMC ownership is in place, there is almost continuous land protection north to Baxter Park, the state’s largest wilderness preserve. Plum Creek Timber owns land on the north boundary of the AMC land, and the state is trying to purchase a conservation easement and/or fee tracts there. Next to the Plum Creek property is the state’s Nahmakanta public reserve unit, then The Nature Conservancy’s Debsconeag property that adjoins Baxter Park.

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