By Kevin Miller
Snow clouds loomed in the distance Friday as a group from the Appalachian Mountain Club gazed down on a vast expanse of rugged forestland in Township 7 Range 10 that, in many ways, epitomizes the current tug of war over Maine’s North Woods.
Standing on a scrubby hillside dotted with moose tracks and droppings, the three AMC staffers pointed to streams and rivers where wild, native brook trout thrive in isolation from human-stocked trout waters. The tree-covered slopes of 3,500-foot Baker Mountain dominated the backdrop while, far on the horizon, mile-high Mount Katahdin occasionally peeked through the clouds.
This land, known as Katahdin Iron Works, is an outdoors-lover’s paradise. Thousands of hikers, hunters, snowmobilers and other backcountry enthusiasts use it every year just as they have for decades.
So why is AMC’s plan to permanently preserve the 37,000-acre property generating controversy?
Like many recent dust-ups over Maine’s woods, it’s all about access.
AMC does not prohibit sportsmen, snowmobilers or others from enjoying most of its property. But the organization’s decision to set aside roughly 10,000 of the 37,000 acres as an ecological reserve has angered some snowmobilers who used trails on the property that are now off-limits.
AMC also is seeking $1.25 million from the Land for Maine’s Future board to establish a permanent conservation easement on the entire 37,000-acre parcel. Although the 27,000 acres outside the reserve would remain open to snowmobiling and other activities, local sledding clubs and the Maine Snowmobile Association have enlisted the support of professional guides, and some sporting camp owners are petitioning the LMF board to deny the funding.
The LMF board is still widely expected to approve the expenditure this Tuesday. When combined with more than $4 million in federal money, the $1.25 million would buy a perpetual no-development easement on the land for the Maine Department of Conservation.
But the skirmish over snowmobile routes is just one incident in a much wider battle between conservationists and sporting groups that, while often sharing similar goals, can’t seem to get along these days.
That struggle likely will play out once again in legislative chambers in the coming weeks as lawmakers consider a variety of bills on land access.
Some snowmobilers view the AMC’s closure of two traditional snowmobile trails in the ecological reserve as yet another example of an environmental group limiting access to their backyard.
“The only time we experience loss of access is when it is a so-called ‘conservation group,’ and that’s disturbing to us,” said Bob Meyers, executive director of the 30,000-member Maine Snowmobile Association.
But AMC representatives say misinformation is feeding much of the ire over the Katahdin Iron Works property.
While snowmobilers have lost two underutilized trails, they would gain explicit rights through the easement to a major sledding corridor between Greenville and Brownville as well as several new trails, they said. Meanwhile, hunters, trappers and others would have guaranteed access to a prized piece of land just miles from Moosehead Lake.
“Yes, there are viable concerns” over access, said Bob LeRoy, AMC’s land stewardship manager for the region. “But that’s not what’s happening here. We’re being lumped into all of that.”>/p>
LeRoy played a key role in AMC’s acquisition of the Katahdin Iron Works acreage as former owner of the land’s historic Little Lyford Pond Camp, located about 12 miles east of Greenville.
International Paper approached LeRoy and his wife in 2003 with an offer to sell the couple the leased camp land. Representatives of the giant paper and timber company said they also were looking for a buyer — or buyers — of the surrounding forestland.
Standing inside Little Lyford’s main cabin Friday, LeRoy recalled how the sight of “liquidator harvesters” driving around the property left him fearful for both his camp and the land he loved. He negotiated a deal with IP to buy 300 acres around the camp, but he needed additional investors.
In stepped AMC, a New England-based organization that operates backcountry camps, huts and campgrounds throughout the Northeast. By the end of 2003, AMC not only had bought Little Lyford camp, it also had struck a $14 million deal with IP for the entire Katahdin Iron Works property.
“The 37,000 acres could have gone the other way just like that,” said LeRoy, snapping his fingers, “and it would have been gone. And people don’t realize how close we came.”>/p>
Bryan Wentzell, policy manager for AMC in Maine, said the organization immediately reached out to local sporting groups to assure them of its open-access intentions and to gather suggestions on improvements.
As a result, AMC has improved several trails, created a new connector trail to the Elliottsville area, and added language to its conservation easement acknowledging the existence of the major ITS trail between Greenville and Brownville.
The Greenville-to-Brownville trail, known as ITS 110, is only the second instance where a snowmobile route was specifically written into an LMF easement.
In addition, AMC has added 25 miles of cross-country skiing and nonmotorized use trails and continues to manage the property as a working forest. More than 6,000 cords of wood were harvested in 2006.
Wentzell describes the property, which is central to the organization’s Maine Woods Initiative, as a “classic example of multiple use” that he hopes will help diversify the Moosehead-area economy.
“We’re not trying to push out any users or fundamentally change the use,” Wentzell said. “We are trying to bring other users to the area: the hikers, skiers, snowshoers who are not coming now. We don’t have any desire to replace the snowmobilers,” which he acknowledged are key to the winter economy.
Some representatives of the local and statewide snowmobile organizations see things differently, however.
Tom McCormick, president of Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club in Greenville, said AMC was open to his group’s concerns until the issue of the ecological reserve emerged.
McCormick said the club trails — estimated by the different parties at anywhere from 9 to 30 miles — located within the reserve were popular side trails for riders wanting to get away from the sled traffic and speed on ITS 110.
While cooperative on other trails, AMC’s firm stance on the ecological reserve closed off trails that were important to both the club and the local economy, McCormick said.
Meyers with the Maine Snowmobile Association is even more critical of AMC.
Meyers disagrees with the use of public money to buy an easement for land with restricted access, if only on part of the property. He also questions the ecological uniqueness of the reserve land and accuses AMC of attempting to create a “faux wilderness” to benefit its paying camp customers at the expense of locals.
“Obviously, LMF has been a very good program but it has very, very limited funding,” Meyers said. “So it just seems wrong to us to take $1.25 million of limited funding and use it on a project where we don’t see where the public benefit is.”>/p>
LeRoy, who lives in a camp outside of the reserve, estimated that fewer than 100 snowmobilers used the now-closed trails during recent years.
He also bristled at Meyer’s “faux wilderness” charge.
Standing on a snow-covered road running along the southern border of the reserve, LeRoy explained that the road marks a kind of continental divide within the property where water on one side flows into the Kennebec River and water on the other flows into the Penobscot River.
The Penobscot side — the area of the ecological reserve — harbors one of the few remaining populations of wild, native Eastern brook trout in all of the U.S., according to LeRoy and Wentzell. The trout populations are protected from interbreeding with stocked trout by the waterfalls of Gulf Hagas near the reserve’s southern border.
“The significance of that is it is a native, wild brook trout fishery that is genetically pure,” LeRoy said. Rare or endangered plants also have been discovered on the property, he added.
The two men said they also are frustrated by false rumors that AMC is gating or closing off land to hunters and trappers.
All of the property, including the reserve, is open to sportsmen year-round, they said. The only change is that AMC de-staffs checkpoints on entry roads in fall and winter, meaning users can come and go without checking in or paying a maintenance fee.
Discord about the reserve has spread to professional guides and sporting camp owners, some of whom also have written letters to the LMF board opposing the project.
That has caused some tension between Eric Stirling, proprietor of West Branch Pond Camps near Greenville, and some of his sporting camp colleagues.
Stirling, whose camp is adjacent to the AMC land, said his business has benefited from AMC’s marketing of the region and that his clients enjoy venturing into the reserve. He also gives AMC credit for reopening private camps to public use.
In an e-mail to the Bangor Daily News, Stirling said it is wrong to group AMC with Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby, who prohibits hunting and mechanized recreation on tens of thousands of acres in her ownership, or to RESTORE: The North Woods.
“Anyone who really takes the time to go over the facts of this easement will acknowledge the balance being sought by the Department of Conservation and AMC,” Stirling wrote. “The problem is that very few people bother to listen to what is actually being proposed or take the time to find out from the seller of the easement what they really intend to do.”>/p>
Karin Tilberg, the outgoing deputy commissioner of the Department of Conservation, said the department is concerned anytime snowmobilers lose access to land. But she pointed out that LMF has money that specifically goes to snowmobile projects.
In the Katahdin Iron Works case, the department saw an opportunity to protect tens of thousands of acres in an area increasingly at risk of fragmentation and development. At the same time, the department was able to guarantee the ITS 110 corridor while encouraging other forms of recreation.
“The key is just to make sure overall that we have a good balance in a particular region,” Tilberg said.