by Christopher Crosby, Staff Writer
Sun Journal news story
HARRISON — When Robert Carlson’s father-in-law was hospitalized in Portland nearly sixty years ago, he gave instructions for the young sawmill operator to watch over nearly 3,000 forested acres.
A land owner and two trusts are close to signing a $1.37 million deal to set aside 800 acres in Otisfield and Harrison. Above, Twin Bridges in Otisfield, a 247 acre parcel that will become open to fishing, kayaking and hiking.
Carlson never saw him again. Now 89, he’s spent most of his life tending the land like a garden, carefully harvesting and selling the timber over decades, just enough so that he and his wife would never have to own a credit card.
After years of rejecting offers from developers, he’s selling in order to preserve the land for future generations before he dies. In a deal worth $1.37 million, Carlson will turn over roughly 800 acres in Otisfield and Harrison, much of it on the Crooked River, to two land trusts later this month.
The land will be forever protected from development, but open to recreation and occasional harvesting.
“Someone has to look forward and not let everything be sold for the dollar. You have to look ahead and see that some things got to remain the same,” Carlson said.
The deal includes two parcels totalling 590 acres being sold at full appraised value. In Otisfield, 290 acres on the Crooked River, known as the Twin Bridges site, is being sold for $617,000. Another 300 acres in Harrison, called Intervale, is selling for $515,000. It has nearly 7,000 feet of frontage along the Crooked River.
Additionally, the land trusts are also buying adjacent parcels in a “bargain sale” — $170,000 is being knocked off — including 130 acres in Otisfield known as the Oak Hill parcel for $190,000; 56 acres in Otisfield called the Watkins parcel for $85,000; and 75 acres in Harrison known as the Woodsum Brook parcel for $120,700.
The parties expected to have completed the deal months earlier. But earlier this spring $400,000, roughly a third of the funding, was suddenly wiped off the table when Gov. Paul LePage refused to disburse voter-approved bond funds designated for the project to Land For Maine’s Future, a state-run program that aids conservation efforts. LePage is holding out to get Legislature approval to harvest more timber on state-owned lands.
Unsure of how many years he has left, Carlson, a LePage supporter on other issues, decided to take matters into his own hands. He’s now loaning WFLT roughly $222,000 at a one-percent interest rate, a necessary, if unusual, route. As a land trust, the group has little capital to secure a traditional bank loan, according to Executive Director Lee Dassler.
The deal would be one of its largest, Dassler said. To pay off the loan the land trust will sell the timber.
“These are all working forest parcels, but both of the land trusts would have preferred to have their foresters and their boards determine harvest goals and harvest timing,” Dassler said.
Loon Echo Executive Director Carrie Walia said she anticipates securing an outside loan for their $178,000 portion and are retaining Carlson’s loan offer as a backup option.
For the land trusts, preventing development on the river is crucial. The Crooked River flows through Oxford and Cumberland counties on its way to Sebago Lake, Portland’s drinking water source, providing nearly 40 percent of in-flowing water and one of a few breeding sites for indigenous salmon.
Which is why when the Portland Water District saw the proposal, they pledged $280,000 toward the purchase, the largest in its history, according to Environmental Manager Paul Hunt.
“If the watershed stays forested, the lake will be cleaner, and our costs will be lower. It’s not one-to-one dollars-wise, but you don’t have to look far to see the connection between a healthy forest and clean water,” Hunt said.
Other donors include a variety of foundations, conservation grants and private individuals.
Forester Fred Huntress has overseen Carlson’s plots for four decades, and said Carlson is close to the land because he recognizes a hard day’s work.
“He’s very concerned about it. It’s his life. If they wanted house lots, there’d be houses all over the damn river. Money isn’t their goal in life,” Huntress said.