Percival Baxter spent more than 30 years and much of his own fortune creating a 200,000-acre wilderness legacy for future generations to enjoy.
But a key part of Baxter’s vision eluded protection: the serene waters of Katahdin Lake with its matchless views of its namesake peak.
Now, for the first time in a century, these lands are available for acquisition. The moment comes during a period of unequalled turnover in the ownership of Maine’s North Woods. Conservationists say there is no higher priority than securing Katahdin Lake and incorporating it into Baxter State Park.
During the last three years, the Maine Department of Conservation and a private group, the Trust for Public Land, have negotiated a complex deal that would add the lake and 6,000 acres to the park’s eastern boundary.
Two hurdles remain. The first is straightforward: the Trust for Public Land has to raise $14 million for acquisition and an endowment. All Mainers who care about conservation could honor Baxter’s vision by contributing to the effort.
The second, thornier issue revolves around the tension between Baxter’s vision of a wilderness redoubt for people and wildlife and Katahdin Lake’s long hunting heritage.
The Baxter Park Authority intends to eliminate hunting (but not fishing). Since the deal involves the sale of state-owned lands, two-thirds of the Legislature must approve. Some lawmakers are grumbling that unless hunters retain access, they’ll vote no.
Hopefully the critics will reconsider. This is one deal where everyone – hunters especially – will benefit.
The owner of the Katahdin Lake tract, Gardner Land Co., needs timberland. This old-line timber company employs 200 in Penobscot County and is the biggest supplier of the Lincoln Paper and Tissue mill. Lincoln paper just announced it was investing $35 million in new equipment. The Gardners need more timber. Their lands around Katahdin Lake won’t suffice.
Under terms of the deal, TPL has loaned Gardner money to buy 14,000 acres of former International Paper land. The group will buy 7,400 acres of state timberland in Franklin, Piscataquis, Washington, Aroostook and Penobscot counties for the Gardners.
The state will get a $5.5. million check, which the Department of Conservation will use to buy replacement lands in those counties specifically for hunters.
The Katahdin Lake country has poor hunting. The new acquisitions will be selected for their wildlife habitat and hunter access.
Here’s the bottom line: An old Maine timber company gets a chance to grow. So does a revived mill that employs 350 Mainers. That’s a double win for Penobscot County. Gov. Baxter’s vision will be fulfilled. Hunters get permanently protected land elsewhere.
It would be a tremendous shame if this deal falls apart.