By John Richardson, Portland Press Herald Writer
AUGUSTA — A compromise plan to add Katahdin Lake and surrounding land to Baxter State Park got new life Monday and now appears headed for approval. Members of a legislative committee that had been deeply divided about the plan changed some of the details related to snowmobiles and sent the measure to the full Legislature with an 10-1 vote of support. Two members were absent.
The strong ought-to-pass recommendation put the plan on more solid footing as it went to the House and the Senate, where two-thirds support is needed.
Last month, when the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee first voted on the plan, members were so split about hunting and other uses that some predicted the whole deal would fall apart.
“I think we stand a much greater chance now of actually preserving Katahdin Lake,” Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said after the reconsideration vote Monday.
Raye played a key role by effectively dropping a demand that Baxter State Park allow grooming of its perimeter road for improved snowmobile access. He and other members said last month that the change would be a fair trade-off for lost snowmobile access to land around the lake.
The compromise plan endorsed Monday would instead require the state to create a plan for improved snowmobile access in the Katahdin region. The plan could recommend improved access to Baxter State Park, but wouldn’t require it.
Members of the Baxter State Park Authority sent a letter to committee members during the weekend saying they would consider any request, but insisting that park policy should remain free of legislative influence.
Raye said the compromise reached Monday is a strong package and respects the traditions of residents who use the land for recreation. “The people who live there are the most directly affected. There’s no getting around it,” he said.
The compromise splits into two pieces a 6,015-acre area originally proposed as a park expansion. The lake and 4,040 acres directly around it would be added to the park and restricted as a wildlife sanctuary, under the compromise. Nearly 2,000 acres to the north would become a public lot, managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands and open for hunting, snowmobiling and other uses.
Lawmakers said the plan would fulfill the vision of Gov. Percival Baxter, who wanted to add Katahdin Lake to the park but never succeeded.
In addition, the compromise requires the state to try to buy 8,000 more acres of timberland east of the lake to protect access for traditional uses such as hunting. If the land couldn’t be purchased, the state would seek an easement allowing people to use the land, or at least cross it to adjoining state land.
One unresolved issue that may complicate the debate in the full Legislature is financing for the deal.
The original proposal was for a $14 million fundraising campaign to pay for the park expansion. Officials now say that the compromises and the prolonged debate in the Legislature will likely set back that effort, and public funding may be needed to help finalize the deal.
The uncertainty about funding was cited by the lone dissenter, Rep. Joanne Twomey, D-Biddeford. Twomey has consistently favored the original proposal to add all 6,015 acres to the park as a wildlife sanctuary.
“I don’t buy the premise that we can’t sell it upstairs” in the House and Senate, she said. “Let’s try.”>/p>
Most members said they were encouraged by Monday’s vote and happy with the plan.
“It won’t please everyone, but it does not compromise on Gov. Baxter’s original vision,” said Rep. John Piotti, D-Unity, co-chair of the committee.
“I believe that people will support this,” said Rep. Patrick S. Flood, R-Winthrop.