Photo by: Steve Horne

Traditional use essential for Katahdin Lake lands

Thursday, March 02, 2006 - Bangor Daily News

By V. Paul Reynolds - The much-touted $14 million plan to annex Katahdin Lake and 6,000 adjoining acres of scenic wildland to Baxter State Park reminds me of a mail-order life insurance policy. It's an attractive deal until you begin to scrutinize the fine print. It's complicated and not a straightforward deal.

A national nonprofit foundation, the Trust for Public Land (TPL), pays the state $5.5 million for some public lots (public wildlands) at $750 an acre. The private company that owns the Katahdin Lake acreage then deeds over the land to Baxter State Park in exchange for the public lots and other land purchased by TPL. Meanwhile, the state turns around and buys replacement land or conservation easements with the generated $5.5 million.

If you overlook the complexities and the fine print, this is an enticing deal. We all love and use Baxter State Park, and there is historical evidence that this land annexation would complete Percival Baxter's dream. And those folks who have been working behind the scenes to engineer this deal are counting on the overwhelming raw public appeal of this land deal. What they apparently didn't count on was the controversy over the plan to exclude traditional use (hunting, trapping, snowsledding, etc.) in this new part of the park.

To their everlasting credit a number of state lawmakers, whose vote will be needed to approve this deal, as well as George Smith of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, have indicated that without guarantees of traditional use there will be no deal. That is as it should be. Traditional use has been taking a beating as changing times and changing land ownership patterns create high anxiety among those of us who enjoy hunting, trapping and other traditional forms of outdoor recreation.

The public acceptability of this land swap hasn't been helped by these unfortunate miscalculations:

  1. The Baxter Park Authority assumed too much. It should have anticipated the traditional use firestorm and resolved the issue before unveiling the deal. Where were they living in 1998 when attempts were made to annex some West Branch land to the park without traditional use?

    Although it is not common knowledge, about 25 percent (51,000 acres) of the park land is open to hunting. In fact in 1998, then Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Ray "Bucky" Owen (a member of the Baxter Park Authority), fought hard successfully to protect hunting privileges in the West Branch land that was about to be annexed to the park. You can hunt there today.

    The question is begged: Why did today's Fisheries and Wildlife commissioner, Roland "Danny" Martin, as a voting member of the authority, go along with the traditional use exclusion? If he won't speak for hunters, who will?
  2. The Department of Conservation would have helped its case if had faced the traditional use question squarely instead of omitting it altogether from its press releases. (Ironically in DOC's color handout Teddy Roosevelt, who admired the Katahdin Lake region, is pictured with his hunting rifle!)
  3. To support their contention that the hunting is no good in the Katahdin Lake area, the government publicists site a comment from Roosevelt made in 1879.
  4. Sam Hodder, senior project manager for TPL, said "They're losing 6,000 acres of poor hunting land, and in exchange they're getting $5.5 million worth of solid hunting opportunity." C'mon, Sam. How can you know how good the hunting will be, the replacement land has not yet been earmarked, according to Bureau of Public Lands spokesman Ralph Knoll.

What should be equally bothersome is that nobody in officialdom that I can find has addressed the financial questions: Is it a good deal, a fair price? Maybe it's because it spends other people's money, but state government always seems to pay highest dollar for any land that is purchased from private landowners.

If you crunch the numbers, the Katahdin Lake land is costing $2,111 per acre. As George Smith of SAM noted recently, "This is the most expensive land purchase in the history of the north woods."

In comparison, the public lots, which belong to you and me, are being sold to TPL for $750 an acre. DOC's media spokesman Jim Crocker emphasizes the point that the Katahdin land "deal" really doesn't involve public money. That may be so but there are indirect consequences when well-meaning public officials perform as though they had more money than they know what to do with.

People who deal in land - appraisers, real estate brokers, and speculators - know that land values are connected to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people are willing to pay the inflated land values, the higher they will go. If the state establishes a precedent by paying more than $2,000 an acre for the wildlands next to Baxter, what will this do to other wildland values?

It's early in the game, but those agencies of state government advocating this land deal would be wise to get their ears closer to the ground. Without traditional use in the Katahdin Lake lands, the Maine Legislature will never approve this deal.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program "Maine Outdoors" and former information officer for the Maine Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]