AUGUSTA — A legislative committee settled on a tenuous compromise plan Thursday that would add Katahdin Lake to Baxter State Park while preserving hunting access on lands to the north. The vote followed several hours of emotional arguments and speeches. It keeps the historic deal alive, but in no way guarantees the plan will succeed when it goes before the full Legislature next week.
“I’m very hopeful,” said Unity Democratic Rep. John Piotti, chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “We all knew that this was only the beginning.”>/p>
Others sounded less optimistic.
“I feel a very strong sense of failure on this,” Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, quietly told fellow committee members before the vote. “I hope that others can succeed where we failed.”>/p>
Eight of the committee’s 12 members generally supported a plan to divide the area around Katahdin Lake into two pieces. The southern 4,040 acres directly around the lake would become part of the park and be restricted as wildlife sanctuary. The northern 1,975 acres would become a mixed-use public lot managed by the state Bureau of Parks and Lands.
The compromise is intended to appease rural lawmakers who vowed to oppose any loss of hunting and snowmobiling access in the area. The issue of access exploded into a clash of cultures in the committee room during the past two weeks and still threatens to unravel the deal, despite the compromise.
Rep. Roger Sherman, R-Hodgdon, called it a “skirmish in the greater war over who controls the 8 million or 9 million acres across northern Maine.”>/p>
The eight members who supported splitting the land are themselves divided over a separate condition described as a potential “poison pill” because it could kill the deal.
Three of the eight said they will support the compromise only if the Baxter State Park Authority agrees to groom the park’s perimeter road for snowmobiles. The improved access for local residents would be a fair trade-off for the loss of access around the lake, they argued.
Whether to groom the park road is a perennial battle. The issue even went to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decades ago. For the past 25 years, snowmobilers have been allowed to ride on the perimeter road, but grooming has been forbidden.
“We need to ensure the grooming of the perimeter trail to make this (deal) palatable,” said Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry.
The attempt to change the rules in the existing park intensified emotions that were already running high.
“This is total blackmail,” said Rep. Joanne Twomey, D-Biddeford. She was one of three members who voted to add all of the land to Baxter park rather than splitting it up.
Attorney General Steven Rowe, chairman of the Baxter State Park Authority, said he needed to restrain his words but asked if the snowmobile idea was intended to poison the whole deal.
“My support for the package is waning. The whole thing has changed very dramatically and I’m concerned about where this is going,” he said. “This is certainly not what Gov. Baxter wanted, I can tell you that.”>/p>
Rowe and others said the Legislature cannot dictate policies to the park authority, which Percival Baxter set up expressly to avoid political pressure.
The committee’s eventual vote effectively left the grooming issue for the full House and Senate to decide during their debates.
“There’s no way this is going to go through without other changes,” said Piotti, the committee chairman, referring to the likelihood of amendments to the bill.
Changes in the plan could affect the financial success of the project, which assumed supporters could raise $14 million in private donations by June. Lawmakers said the compromise means the state will now have to help pay for the project, though it’s unclear what the public share will be.
The changes and conditions also could doom the project politically, some committee members warned. The deal will die without the support of two-thirds of the Legislature.
“It’s become so cluttered . . . that I don’t know how on earth we’re going to be able to sell it to the rest,” said Rep. Donald Marean, R-Hollis. Marean opposed the compromise and supported adding all of the land to the park.
“Everybody’s trying to get their little piece,” Twomey said. “The losers are the people of the state of Maine.”>/p>
Patrick McGowan, commissioner of the state Department of Conservation, said the deal became far more complicated and controversial than state officials expected. But he said he remains optimistic that the compromise will succeed in the Legislature.
“I don’t think the things that divide them are that far apart,” McGowan said.