AUGUSTA — Plans to expand Baxter State Park set off an emotional clash over the use of Maine’s North Woods during a legislative hearing Monday. Virtually every speaker supported the idea of conserving 6,015 acres around Katahdin Lake. But they argued over access for hunters with such intensity that it left many fearful that the whole plan could fall apart.
As presented to legislators, the plan would ban hunting, trapping, snowmobiling and ATV riding on the land. Hunting is allowed in about 25 percent of the park – on land acquired after the park was created – but the Katahdin Lake parcel would be added to the sanctuary.
“I resent the fact that they’re treating me like I’m inferior in some way because I like to hunt and trap. It’s my heritage,” said Alfred Cooper, operator of Katahdin Lake Camps. Cooper and others urged legislators to change the plan to safeguard traditional uses of the land.
Supporters urged lawmakers to accept the plan as it is and stay true to Gov. Percival Baxter’s original vision. Baxter intended to make Mount Katahdin and Katahdin Lake the centerpieces of Maine’s wilderness sanctuary, but he was never able to acquire the lake.
“Hunters, trappers and snowmobilers do not have a lock on Maine’s outdoors and Maine’s outdoor heritage,” said John Glowa of South China. “As one of the 90 percent of Mainers who don’t hunt, I am tired of the outdoor extremists trying to impose their wills on the rest of us.”
About 200 people attended the hearing, and the arguments revealed the deepening struggle over the future of the North Woods. They also underscored how difficult it may be for the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee to reach a compromise and keep the historic plan from collapsing.
The $14 million deal to add Katahdin Lake to Baxter State Park involves a complex land swap and took years to negotiate. It will be financed through a private fundraising campaign. But, because 7,400 acres of state-owned land would be sold and included in the swap, it requires the support of two-thirds of Maine’s Legislature.
Lawmakers say such support is unlikely as long as the plan would ban hunting and other uses. However, a change in the conditions would require the deal to be renegotiated.
Advocates for the plan described the natural beauty around the lake, which has drawn such admirers as Teddy Roosevelt and the painter Frederic Church.
Standing next to the lake in the shadow of Mount Katahdin, “the spirit is moved and the soul is refreshed,” said Buzz Caverly, the former longtime director of Baxter State Park. He urged lawmakers not to pass up “the last opportunity” to fulfill Baxter’s vision.
Linda McKee, a member of the Friends of Baxter State Park’s Board of Directors, said Gov. Baxter “must be grinning ear to ear wherever he is. We must not allow this parcel to slip through our fingers.”
The picturesque lake, the streams and a rare stand of old-growth forest deserve to become one of the relatively few places protected as a wilderness sanctuary, said Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “This 6,000-acre parcel is unlike any other parcel in the state of Maine,” she said.
Critics, meanwhile, argued passionately for changes in the plan to protect traditional access, something they say is constantly threatened in rural Maine.
Wallace Paul presented the committee with a unanimous resolution from the Millinocket Town Council supporting the conservation plan, but only if it protects traditional access.
Paul said the issue goes beyond hunting. It’s about defending the heritage and identity of rural Maine and its people. “There seems to be an implication that what we do with our lives is inappropriate,” he said.
George Smith, director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said hunters and trappers never tried to exclude people the way other users are now.
“They’re the newcomers to the wilderness. Hunters have been there for centuries,” he said. “Why do these people think hunters don’t deserve the same experience, the same solitude? . . . “If Gov. Baxter were here today, he would stand with me.”
Maine’s conservation commissioner, Patrick McGowan, said the intensity of the two sides has many worried about the deal. “I definitely think this could go down,” he said.
Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds and the committee co-chair, said he is still hopeful about reaching compromise in the coming weeks before a final vote.
“But,” he said, “it’s going to take some compromise from both sides of the hunting issue.”