Timber Companies Seek to Bridge Remote Wassataquoik Stream at Orin Falls

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 7/29/05

The proposed bridge would be the only major span across the long, remote waterway until near the southern end where it joins with the East Branch of the Penobscot River.
(Photo: Fred Michaud)

Poised to complete an important conservation deal with the state, landowner/logger William T. Gardner is also about to commence a fight with environmentalists over a proposed bridge spanning one of the wildest streams in Maine's North Woods.

Gardner and two other landowners filed a permit application with the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) on July 12 to bridge Wassataquoik Stream at Orin Falls in Township 4 Range 8. It would be the only major span across the long, remote waterway until near the southern end where it joins with the East Branch of the Penobscot River. The proposed bridge site is east of a 6,000-acre parcel in T4R8 and T3R8 encompassing Katahdin Lake that Gardner is selling to the state and is slated to be added to Baxter State Park.

Before seeking a bridge permit, Gardner wrote to conservation philanthropist and abutting landowner Roxanne Quimby to ask for access to his T4R8 land over her existing roads that are the historic routes to the north and east sides of the Wassataquoik. He said Quimby did not respond.

However, Quimby told Maine Environmental News on July 23 that she is willing to negotiate with Gardner. "Nothing is to be gained by being obstinate and stubborn and letting the stream and forest pay the price," she stated.

Environmental spokespersons were upset to hear that the anticipated bridge construction application had been formally submitted. "We are very distressed to hear about the proposal," said Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM). "We hope Gardner will reconsider." Charlie Jacobi, president of Friends of Baxter State Park, commented that further development of the land east of the park would be "disappointing. The wilderness value of these lands far outweighs other values," he said.

Wilderness activist/businessman Charles FitzGerald, owner of Katahdin Lake Camps, said it's a "great shame" that the Wassataquoik region, "one of the most extraordinary in Maine" hasn't been protected in its entirety already. The stream, almost "sacred" among wilderness lovers, emanates from the remote Klondike and the slopes of Katahdin in Baxter Park. The several branches of the stream converge above a series of falls before flowing southeast out of the park through T4R8, T3R8 and T3R7 to the East Branch.

After the pioneering heydays of lumbering in the region, from the late 1800s to the 1920s, the Wassataquoik forest was left to grow up again into thick stands, replete with old growth trees.

Legendary Appalachian Trail leader Myron Avery best described the little known Wassataquoik as "a brawling mountain torrent of the clearest water, tumbling along a bed choked with enormous pink granite boulders." After the pioneering heydays of lumbering in the region, from the late 1800s to the 1920s, the Wassataquoik forest was left to grow up again into thick stands, replete with old growth trees. The increasing difficulty of access and geographic isolation caused all but intrepid fishermen and hikers to abandon it for easier recreation elsewhere. It still may be the biggest roadless area east of the Mississippi, even after Gardner has heavily harvested much of T3R8 in recent months.

Charles FitzGerald said he will make another effort to purchase Gardner's still uncut T4R8 holding to insure its permanent preservation. He plans to offer Gardner $1 million to set aside the bridge proposal and work to negotiate a sale. FitzGerald would have to "go on the road," he said, to raise the remaining millions of dollars necessary to accomplish a purchase.

FitzGerald, Quimby and the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) worked for a couple of years (individually and in concert) to acquire some or all of the so-called East Branch lands: 71,000 acres in town townships on Baxter Park's eastern border that were put on the market in 2002 by Irving Woodlands.

Quimby acquired T5R8 bordering Baxter Parks's Traveler mountain range from Irving in 2004 for $12 million. Gardner and landowner/logger H. C. Haynes bought 47,000 acres in T2R8, T3R8 and the southern half of T4R8 from Irving in 2003 for $30 million. The two parties divvied up the land, with Gardner getting all 24,000 acres of T3R8 that contains Katahdin Lake and some of T4R8. (FitzGerald became a sporting camp lessee of Gardner's.) Then BPL, FitzGerald and Quimby tried to do business with Gardner for all of his ownership, knowing that he intended to cut the forest and then possibly sell off the land for development. But the effort was unsuccessful. (See Phyllis Austin story.)

Last spring, the state ended its relationship with Quimby and FitzGerald and negotiated a separate deal with Gardner for the land around Katahdin Lake a parcel that Baxter Park donor Percival Baxter had wanted to include in the preserve. Gardner agreed to spare the old growth woods between FitzGerald's sporting camp and the park border while the agreement was being finalized. The deal is about to be completed.

Meanwhile, Gardner's application is moving through the LURC process.

Scott Rollins, head of the agency's permitting and compliance division, said the commission understands the controversial nature of the bridge permit application and expects to receive requests for a public hearing.

The application proposes to begin work on the bridge on September 6 and have it finished by November 15. But LURC's Rollins said the earliest the full commission could receive a staff recommendation is its September 7 meeting and maybe not until October. A public hearing would push back a decision further.

The bridge permit request was made jointly by Gardner Land Company, Lakeville Shores Inc.; and Prentiss & Carlisle Co. Inc. (land managers) They will share in the $350,000 construction costs and bridge use privileges.

The East Branch lands include four townships located between Baxter Park's eastern border and the western side of the East Branch of the Penobscot River.
(Photo: David Metsky)

The bridge site is in a P-RR (protection recreation) zone but doesn't require a special permit, according to Rollins. The Orin Falls location was chosen, the application said, because it is one of the narrowest stretches of the stream along Gardner's ownership; allows for minimal new road construction to the existing road system to both north and south of the crossing; has solid high ground for approaches on both sides of the stream; and has no evidence of any past ice flow or ice damage problems.

The bridge length would be 127 feet, with an overall width of 17 feet and the traveling width, 14 feet. There would be two abutments, one on each side of the river. There would be no piers or pilings in the stream itself, and no dredging of the stream for the bridge abutments. The total area of shoreline affected would be 50 feet. The estimated clearance of the proposed bridge would be 14 feet at normal high water and four feet at high water.

The application speculates that the bridge "should have a net benefit to the recreational use of the stream. Portions upstream are rocky and not suitable for canoeing or kayaking and the water level fluctuates rapidly," it said, adding that the bridge will improve access to the upper waters, as well as improve response time for potential rescue operations in the area. Some of the increase in recreation might come from ATVers and snowmobilers, the application said.

The state has a 2,340-acre public reserved unit bordering Wassataquoik Stream near the southern end. There is an old bridge across the stream providing access to primitive campsites on the shore. Some 775 acres of the unit are designated an ecological reserve because they contain relatively undisturbed hardwood floodplain forest for a mile back from the mouth of the East Branch. The north bank has old growth pines and the south bank has hemlock, sugar maple, poplar and spruce over 100 years old.

The traditional access into T4R8 was along the so-called Messer Pond Road that veers off the paved Shin Pond Road and cuts through Quimby's T5R8 and into T4R8. (The northern half of T4R8 was recently purchased from Fraser Paper by an investor group called Heartland Forestland Fund V.) When Quimby purchased T5R8, she closed off the road to logging traffic because her goal for the property is to restore its wilderness character.

But Quimby said she would like to "prevent this [bridge proposal] from coming to a head . . . and resume a dialogue [with Gardner]. For six months we tried to find an equitable solution so there would be no need to log the land and so no need to evacuate the wood," she said. "The talks fell apart last spring. Now there is a need to again pick up on the talks and come from a different perspective. With open minds, we can negotiate in good faith and come out with a win-win situation."

Whether Gardner really wants to negotiate use of the Messer Pond Road is the subject of speculation because it would cost him more money to truck the wood north than south over a new bridge. The Messer Pond Road alternative would require an extra 60 or more miles to mills, and using public highways would mean the trucks would be restricted to 100,000 pounds of weight, forcing them to carry more loads.

Gardner has declined to comment on his land negotiations or bridge plans.

If Gardner bridges the Wassataquoik, FitzGerald asserted, it will mean the demise of what's left of the old growth forest still in his ownership. "The stream itself will be compromised, and it will make the whole area much less worthy of [conservation] protection," he said.

Leaders of the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) have been trying to route the footpath through the East Branch lands.

Jensen Bissell, interim director of Baxter State Park, declined to comment on the bridge proposal because the matter "is well outside the confines of the park."

Former Baxter Park campground assistant and Wassataquoik advocate Jonathan Milne is critical of the state for not protecting the stream and surrounding forest already. "Let the increased sedimentation from Gardiner's bridge and liquidation harvest stain the hands of those who could have saved the property," he said. "It's time for the Baxter Park Authority to sing loudly across the land that these areas next to the border are precious and important and worth fighting for."

For a long time, former Maine Conservation Department commissioner Dick Anderson and other leaders of the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) have been trying to route the footpath through the East Branch lands. Board member Don Hudson said the proposed trail route would not go in the vicinity of Orin Falls but that the IAT organization doesn't want "to see the area ravaged."

The IAT board has been working for more than a decade to locate a trail from the east side of Baxter Park north through the woods towards Mars Hill and on into Canada. But commercial landowners haven't been cooperative, Hudson said. Currently, IAT hikers use Baxter Park like other visitors and than walk along the Shin Pond Road and other paved ways to Mars Hill.

Go to archive of Phyllis Austin Reports for Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org).