The Steal of the Century

Monday, September 18, 2006

Written by Senator Davis

When Governor Baldacci signed LD 2015 into law on April 24 of this year he called it the deal of the century. Others in the Legislature and around the state saw it for what it really was - the steal of the century.

When the Legislature voted to approve Governor Baldacci’s bill, known as the “Katahdin Lake Land Transfer Bill,” many Maine people expressed concerns about the deal, including the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Maine Snowmobile Association. This land deal was just complicated enough to allow the players involved to get away with it. While claiming to add more than 6,000 acres of land surrounding Katahdin Lake to Baxter State Park, the end result was that more than 4,000 acres of land was closed off to the traditional uses of hunting, fishing and snowmobiling.

Never before has a conservation project involving the state banned traditional uses on the lands being purchased and protected. Whether it was Nicatous, the Downeast Lakes Project, Machias River, Pingree lands, the West Branch of the Penobscot, the Katahdin Forest, the principles of conservation and traditional uses have been successfully merged. Since 1997 more than two million acres of conservation lands have been purchased, none have restricted traditional uses. Even Baxter State Park allows hunting in 25% of the park.

There were also concerns expressed about the finances of the deal, as there should be with any land deal involving taxpayer money. The owners selling the parcel to be annexed to Baxter State Park, the Gardners, will receive approximately $2,150 per acre, the highest price ever paid for conservation land in Maine. The public lands being swapped to the Gardners by the State of Maine, 7,400 acres of public lands in four counties, will be sold for $5.5 million, or approximately $750 an acre. Some deal!

My biggest fears back in the spring were even simpler than the math. I was afraid that the piece of the 6,000 acre parcel that was set aside for traditional use, just under 2,000 acres, was at risk of becoming landlocked. Here is exactly what I said on the floor of the Senate when LD 2015 came before us, “Access to this land has to go across the Haynes land, which is owned by the Haynes Corporation, and could be sold tomorrow. If that land is sold, that could be locked up.”

The news of the purchase of the land directly to the south of this parcel confirms my fears. With Roxanne Quimby’s purchase of the lands that border the area surrounding the Katahdin Lake parcel there is no doubt that the land set aside for traditional use through the patchwork compromise will be inaccessible. The very people who wish to hunt, fish or snowmobile on this publicly owned land will have no way of getting to it. This is where I have to say, “I told you so.”

I have no quarrel with the right of Ms. Quimby to purchase this land. She has every right to do so. My concern is that this private acquisition, combined with the publicly funded Katahdin Lake land swap, represents a growing assault on the way of life generations of Mainers have known. It was a very bad deal for Maine people when it was signed into law by Governor Baldacci. It is an even worse deal for the people of Maine today.

Those who know me know of my love of the outdoors. Whether hunting, fishing or snowmobiling, being in the Maine woods has always been part of my life. That way of life is threatened more and more. And it is threatened with the support and participation of our current administration.

The state should simply walk away from this “deal” and let Ms. Quimby buy up the whole piece of land from Baxter State Park to the East Branch of the Penobscot River, as she has stated is her goal. Maine people will still be banned from enjoying the traditional uses of the land that they have enjoyed for generations, but at least the state won’t be involved in this “steal of the century.” Of course, Department of Conservation Commissioner Pat McGowan probably won’t be allowed to land his float plane on Katahdin Lake if that happens.