Deal Would Realize Percival Baxter's Dream of Adding Katahdin Lake to Park

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 1/24/06

It will be the first acreage ever bought for the park with money other than Gov. Baxterís assets. That the Baxter Park Authority is willing to accept a privately funded parcel underscores the unique values of the property.
(Go to Phyllis Austin Reports for background information on this story.)

Katahdin Lake is the sole remaining parcel outside Baxter State Park that Gov. Percival P. Baxter intended for inclusion in his breathtaking wilderness preserve. By July 1, this "crown jewel" of the lands along the East Branch of the Penobscot River is expected to become part of the park, removing the threat of development and further logging. Thus, a new generation will have fulfilled the dream of Maineís greatest philanthropist.

To accomplish the ambitious goal, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and the Department of Conservation (DOC) must raise $14 million to purchase 6,015 acres in Township 3 Range 8 (T3R8) WELS from Gardner Land Co. It will be the first acreage ever bought for the park with money other than Gov. Baxterís assets. That the Baxter Park Authority is willing to accept a privately funded parcel underscores the unique values of the property.

The $2,111 an acre purchase price makes Katahdin Lake the most expensive of any North Woods conservation project. Since it is a land exchange agreement instead of a cash deal, Gardner will realize the value in the worth of the traded parcels.

Alec Giffen, the stateís forest bureau chief and a member of the Baxter Park Authority, said the forthcoming acquisition "is great news. The opportunity to preserve land of this quality and character comes along once in a lifetime."

Pat McGowan, commissioner of DOC, is calling on philanthropists and park lovers to honor Gov. Baxterís generosity and memory by donating to the Campaign for Katahdin Lake. The park, McGowan said, has provided solace, challenge and inspiration for millions of visitors since the 1930s, and he is optimistic that many will be thrilled for the opportunity to create a larger Baxter Park, currently at 204,733 acres.

Formal announcement of the fund-raising initiative is to be made Wednesday morning, Jan. 25, by Gov. John Baldacci in the Hall of Flags at the state capitol. Officials from TPL, DOC, the Baxter Park Authority, Gardner Land Co. and an array of other interested parties will be on hand.

McGowan and TPLís Sam Hodder, head of the organizationís Maine office, underscored the Katahdin Lake parcelís array of ecological, historic, artistic and cultural resources. They make it "an icon" of the North Woods, said Hodder.

The forest between the west end of the lake and Baxter Parkís eastern border contain Maineís last unprotected stand of old growth hardwoods and spruce, plus hundreds of acres of late successional forest. Hodder guesses that the old growth covers about 1,000 acres. The 717-acre lake has 3.76 miles of undeveloped shoreline and an outstanding trout fishery. The stunning views of 5,267-foot Katahdin from the lakeís curving shoreline have made it a magnet for famous artists, a special clientele for venerable Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps on the southeast shore. The Katahdin Lake parcel also includes 2.8 miles of the shore of pristine Wassataquoik Stream, which emanates from the slopes of Katahdin.

The Katahdin Lake parcel also includes 2.8 miles of the shore of pristine Wassataquoik Stream, which emanates from the slopes of Katahdin.
(See supersized full map)

Negotiations to purchase the land began three years ago when Irving Woodlands put all 71,000 acres of its East Branch lands on the market. Attempts were made by the state, conservation philanthropist Roxanne Quimby and businessman/wilderness activist Charles FitzGerald to purchase some or all of the lands with the hope of extending and/or protecting Baxter Park to the east bank of the East Branch.

Gardner Land Co., one of the Gardner family woods-related businesses, submitted the successful bid. After the controversial harvesting of some of the townshipís oldest and largest trees, Gardner struck a deal with TPL, acting as intermediary for the state. (TPL is a non-profit organization and facilitates land deals such as this one.)

The parties signed an option agreement last March for $13 million and had until Dec. 15 to work out a capital campaign to raise the money. Based on the positive reactions of potential contributors, the state and TPL decided to go forward. Now, TPL has until July 1 to reach the $13 million mark, plus another $1 million to cover the costs of the endeavor.

Last October, the Baxter Park Authority agreed to accept ownership of the property, an addition that will push the total acreage of the park to 210,748 acres. The conservation parties have agreed that the Katahdin Lake parcel will be managed as wilderness, as is most of the park. That means no harvesting, no hunting, no trapping, no snowmobiles, no ATVs.

Mindful of the 1998 battle over how the West Branch addition would be used, DOC officials discussed the intentions for the Katahdin Lake property with George Smith, executive director of the Sportsmanís Alliance of Maine (SAM). It is not certain at this time whether SAM, which led the fight against "sanctuary" designation of the West Branch lands, will oppose wilderness management of the newest acquisition.

The Baxter family also was consulted and stepped on board with the project, as did Friends of Baxter Park, an independent advocacy group. Rupert White, the great nephew of Percival Baxter, is pleased with the Katahdin Lake purchase effort, but heís concerned about the private money that will have to be raised for the acquisition. "Itís going to have to be large donations," he said. "Iím concerned those donors will look for something in return."

Contributions from outsiders have long been a worry of the Baxter family since Baxterís death. They donít want the park donorís gift to be diminished by competing large gifts. But McGowan was assuring that there will be no strings attached to donations, and they will not overshadow Gov. Baxterís enormous contribution. At the closing in July, a list of contributors likely will be available.

The deed to the park will be encumbered by Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps. Owner Charles FitzGerald, who purchased the camps in 2003, has a lease to 31 acres around the camps. The term of the lease from Gardner was for seven years. He is being offered a 25-year renewable lease or one for his lifetime. FitzGerald, however, hasnít agreed because he wants a lease in perpetuity. DOC maintains there are legal issues with an unlimited term contract and point out that the 25-year lease could be renewed time after time by the Authority if there is a productive, harmonious relationship with FitzGerald.

FitzGerald also wants to eliminate float planes from landing on the lake to enhance the wilderness character of the area. Many visitors to the lake use planes to avoid the only other access Ė a three-mile hiking trail from Avalanche Field in Baxter Park.

Another issue is the two private inholdings on the lake north of the camps. J. M. Huber family owns 100 acres of forestland away from the lake shoreline. The J. W. Sewall family owns about 45 acres and a small camp on the shore. Discussions are on-going with the Sewalls on their future conservation options. There is no development on the Huber property, and the state is interested in talking to them about conservation. Even with an easement, the properties would remain in private hands, making them enormously valuable assets.

In a speech to the Maine Sportsmenís Fish and Game Association on Jan. 27, 1921, Baxter, then president of the Senate, described the proposed preserve as including "the whole of Mount Katahdin, and Katahdin Lake, of itself one of the most beautiful of all Maineís lakes, and which abounds with trout."

Rupert White noted that itís obvious from the original map of Gov. Baxterís park vision that he wanted the Katahdin Lake township included. Baxter, who died in 1969 at the age of 92, included T3R8 as part of his proposal for Mount Katahdin State Park of 57,232 acres. In a speech to the Maine Sportsmenís Fish and Game Association on Jan. 27, 1921, Baxter, then president of the Senate, described the proposed preserve as including "the whole of Mount Katahdin, and Katahdin Lake, of itself one of the most beautiful of all Maineís lakes, and which abounds with trout."

In the summer of 1920, Baxter had stood on the shores of the lake and marveled at the wild beauty. The trip, whose goal was to summit Katahdin, was organized by Patten lumberman Burt Howe and conceived as a way to publicize Baxterís bill to create the Katahdin state park commerating the 100th year of Maineís statehood.

The expeditionís itinerary included crossings of both the East Branch and Wassataquoik Stream and the hike from Katahdin Lake to Chimney Pond. Arthur Staples, who wrote about the trip for the Lewiston Journal, described arriving at the lake about 4:30 in the afternoon after an eight-and-a-half mile venture through the woods. "Where we came out was a little dam and west and north stretched the Lake, about as big as Lake Auburn and suggesting it closely in shape and shores. Over beyond it arose the bleak top of Katahdin serrated and seemingly broken into a gap along its solitary peak Ė as it looked at a distance . . . Not a canoe broke the obvious solitudes of Katahdin. Here is primeval country rarely touched by fisherman or hunter."

Baxter likely saw Katahdin Lake from the summit of Katahdin twice -- when he climbed the mountain in 1920 and then in 1931 when he was on hand to install the summit plaque. He made no more hikes on the mountain, and itís unlikely that he ever visited Katahdin Lake again.

Long before Baxter discovered the glories of Katahdin Lake, artists and outdoorsmen bowed to its beauty. Famed Hudson River School artist Frederic Church, painted the lake with Katahdin in the background as early as 1850 Ė 35 years before the sporting camp was established. Later notable artists associated with the lake are Marsden Hartley and James FitzGerald (no relation to Charles FitzGerald), and other nationally important figures also visited the lake. In 1879, before he was president, Theodore Roosevelt set up his tent on the beach, and tried his fishing luck. He reported that he caught about 60 trout. Among the other notables who have visited the lake and/or stayed at the sporting camp are the late U. S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

The land around Katahdin Lake toward Baxter Park is rugged and includes the flanks of the Turner Mountain range. It is outstanding habitat for moose and black bear, as well as pine marten, pileated woodpecker, hermit thrush and other birds needing unfragmented interior woods. Forested wetlands, such as the cedar seeps and swamps along South Turner Brook shelter uncommon woodland orchids, such as lily-leaved twayblad and northern bog orchid and rare water starwort. Itís a paradise for backcountry recreation Ė hiking, paddling and fishing, and presumably the park will make the area more accessible by foot trails.

Famed Hudson River School artist Frederic Church, painted the lake with Katahdin in the background as early as 1850.

Transferring the property deed is scheduled to occur in the 75th year after Gov. Baxter made his first of 28 conveyances to the state for the park. He gifted to the state just under 6,000 acres including Katahdin in 1931 and didnít complete his purchases until 1962. Baxter left a $7 million trust fund to pay for maintenance and operations of the park, along with use fees. That trust fund is currently valued at approximately $62.7 million.

Friends of Baxter Park president Charlie Jacobi applauded the effort and the individuals "who have worked tirelessly to bring us to this point. We look forward to participating in the campaign so this land will remain as the park founder originally intended Ė forever wild."

On Sept. 11, 2004, when Gov. Baldacci visited the Baxter Park to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Baxterís first visit to the Katahdin area, his appreciation for the park was obvious for all to see. The mountain was awash in sun against a pure blue sky, and Baldacci extolled Baxterís legacy of foresight and generosity.

Already, the DOC and TPLís efforts to acquire the Katahdin Lake property had fallen through, but that June visit renewed Baldacciís interest in trying again. He directed McGowan to approach Gardner again. McGowanís staff spent thousands of hours on the project. "Weíve seen a lot more valleys than peaks," he said. "Our mantra was never give up."

DOCís McGowan praised the Gardner family for returning to the negotiating table. "The Gardners are the straightest dealers Iíve ever dealt with," he said. They were clear about their business priorities and the need to keep their harvesting crews working. In the end, Gardner came to believe that the Katahdin Lake area should be conserved and accepted the appraised value of the property by the Sewall Co. The figure came out to $2,111 an acre based on the high stocking of timber and the development value of the lake shoreline.

Gardner paid $1,000 for 25,000 acres in T3R8 and T4R8 in 2003. The company recouped an untold amount of the $25 million cost by harvesting much of T3R8ís mature stands, including old growth and late successional trees. As loggers neared Katahdin Lake, Gardner ordered them to stop cutting -- a condition of the option agreement they signed with DOC last March.

If Gardner had held on to the parcel and put it up for development after cutting the forest on the Baxter side of the lake, itís reasonable to believe the company could have reaped jaw-dropping profits. Kingdom lots with one-of-a-kind views of Katahdin could sell for millions on todayís market.

As further evidence that the Gardner family appreciates the conservation values of T3R8, they have pledged to negotiate with the state or other parties for the remaining 8,000 acres Ė the so-called "valley" that has already been logged. And the company struck a land swap deal with Burtís Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby last October to protect the 10,400 acres Gardner owned in T4R8. The agreement stopped Gardnerís proposed bridge construction over the Wassataquoik and protected eight miles of the streamís northern shoreline and thousands of acres almost as old as the Katahdin Lake old growth.

Land for Maineís Future Program (LMF) and federal Forest Legacy funds have been critical to the stateís purchase of other conservation lands. But there are requirements of both programs that preclude them from being used for the Katahdin Lake project. LMF requires that their projects allow hunting, and Forest Legacy monies are used to protect "working forests" where harvesting continues.

Baxter Parkís eastern border is 26 miles long. With the Katahdin Lake project, 16 miles will be protected.

Tied to the Katahdin Lake land exchange is a legislative issue. To accomplish the timberland exchange with Gardner, the state has to come up with lands of equal value. The parties agreed on a mix of private and public lands that the state will convey to Gardner.

The state will have to buy the private land and has identified acreage in the Lincoln area which the landowner is willing to sell. Certain public reserve lands will be part of the deal. By law, a two-thirds vote of the legislature is required to transfer any of the public lands out of state ownership, and some lawmakers have warned they might object.

With the cash remaining from the deal, the state will have to buy other private land to replace the public lots Ė a legal requirement. It could provide an opportunity for the state to acquire Gardnerís "valley" lands. That purchase could remove the final major threat of development in the Katahdin Lake area. Logging roads throughout the valley lead to ridges that have priceless views of Katahdin and the other eastern mountain ranges in the park. The parcel also has the last unprotected stretch of the Wassataquoik Ė six miles.

Baxter Parkís eastern border is 26 miles long. With the Katahdin Lake project, 16 miles will be protected. Of the other 10 miles at risk from logging and/or development, contractor Herb Haynes owns seven miles and the Penobscot Indian tribe owns three miles.

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

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