In an inspiring show of purpose, the Legislature’s once-fractured Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee overwhelmingly approved a landmark conservation that adds 4,000 acres to Baxter State Park. The accord also supports the local timber economy and protects traditional uses on surrounding lands.
Now it’s up to the full House and Senate to seize the moment.
For more than 30 years, Maine Gov. Percival Baxter dedicated his time and fortune to creating a wilderness park for all Mainers to enjoy forever. But he never was able to secure Katahdin Lake, with its gorgeous views of the park’s signature massif.
However, thanks to the dogged efforts of an old-line timber company, a national environmental group and the state, Baxter’s dream is tantalizingly close. All that remains is for two-thirds of the Legislature to approve the sale of 7,400 acres of public lots to the Gardner Land Co.
That and the completion of a $14 million fund-raising campaign by the Trust for Public Land, which now has to scramble to meet a July deadline.
The complicated deal would essentially swap 6,000 acres owned by Gardner around the lake for public lots with good timber resources scattered across four counties. As part of the deal, the Trust for Public Land loaned Gardner the money to buy 14,000 acres of former International Paper land to further add to its timber reserves.
However, the fund-raising effort for Katahdin Lake was derailed for weeks as lawmakers wrangled over demands by hunters and snowmobilers for continued access to the parcel. A subsequent demand called on the Baxter Park Authority to groom a park perimeter road for snow machines.
The compromise addresses all three issues. The 4,000 acres closest to the lake, part of Baxter’s vision for the park’s core, would be added to the park as a wildlife sanctuary with no hunting or trapping allowed.
A roughly 200-acre tract to the north would be managed as a public lot so hunting, trapping and snowmobiling will be permitted. Finally, the state agreed to create a snowmobile access plan for the region that would consider improving access to the park.
The Gardners threw in an option for the state to purchase 8,000 acres to the east of the lake within two years. If the state is unable to generate the funds, the Gardners would put a recreational easement on those acres.
As tortured as the process has been, a much stronger consensus has emerged, one that we hope convinces lawmakers to provide the two-thirds approval needed to secure this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.