Secretive ‘Backcountry Project’ Threatens Access to Wilderness

Friday, September 29, 2006

Part one of a three-part series
By Rep. David Trahan

For years, a bloodless but passionate battle has raged between land-use advocates inside the walls of the State House. The fighting pits two opposing camps. There are those of us who value our wild lands for such “traditional” uses as hunting, fishing and snowmobiling. On the other side those who desire that Maine’s backcountry be conserved and free from all human activity.

In an editorial published 25 years ago by the Bangor Daily News, entitled Speaking for Maine, editor V. Paul Reynolds wrote this: “Too many important decisions affecting all of Maine and its citizenry are being made in the Augusta vacuum. This is especially true of decisions that are rife with political overtones. Small, vocal coteries of Augusta-savvy activists are constantly visiting their voguish views upon government and convincing decision-makers that they speak for Maine. This is so much rubbish.”

Reynolds made this statement in defense of allowing snowmobile access on the perimeter road in Baxter State Park. The results of these wars can be seen across the state with victories on both sides. Last March, Allagash-area residents revolted against environmentalists and wilderness advocates. Locals claimed they were being driven off their traditional access sites by elitists. The battle reached such a pitch that the Legislature responded with a new public law – LD 2077, An Act to Make Adjustments to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

The new law guaranteed that the historic local traditions of boat access, vehicular use and timber harvesting would be ensured as part of the future Allagash management plan. The Department of Conservation (DOC), along with a host of environmental organizations, united to oppose this important legislation, but in the end they failed to deny Allagashers access to their own backyard.

Again, during the recent Katahdin Lake debate, the DOC joined forces with state Attorney General Steven Rowe and environmentalists to object to hunters and snowmobiles on all of the proposed 6,000 acres of new state land. Against that backdrop, the Legislature crafted a compromise. It banned hunting and snowmobiling on 4,000 acres around Katahdin Lake, which the state hopes to acquire as part of the Katahdin Lake Land Transfer Bill, while allowing them on an adjacent 2,000-acre tract that is part of the same land transfer.

In the shadows of these two battles, DOC was quietly developing a potential new state policy with implications that could reshape the Maine landscape for advocates of traditional access. On March 22, 2006, in a letter addressed to Commissioner Patrick McGowan, State Rep. Rod Carr and I requested information on a newly created stakeholders group within the department called “the Maine Backcountry Project.”

What we received was a list of the committee membership and the minutes from their first meeting. The committee consisted of 26 members representing environmental or wilderness organizations and the DOC. Seven of these organizations were from out of state. Some of the high profile groups included the Sierra Club, Maine Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, the Wilderness Society, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

According to the minutes of that first meeting, the goal of this committee was to “review various backcountry parcels of land that may be available and that should or could be considered for management as wilderness.” There was discussion about “re-wilding,” “eco-reserves,” and “places identified for protection based on ecological values rather than human, social, or recreational values.”

Twenty-four special places from all corners of Maine were identified for purchase and protection. They ranged from the Kennebec Highlands to the White Mountain National Forest. They also included coastal islands and the Saco, St John and Roach rivers. Nearly every place one might identify as having unique natural beauty was included.

It was revealed in the minutes that the project was being funded by a grant from a Boston-based group – the Kendall Foundation – and was scheduled to last one year. The Kendall Foundation website lists the reasons for the $100,000 grant. It is meant to pay for “support for professional staff to advance and implement conservation land acquisition projects across the State of Maine.”

Much of the first meeting was centered on the themes of the “human-powered experience,” the need to establish statewide standards for “non-motorized wilderness management,” and the “need to segregate user groups into motorized and non-motorized.”

The meeting concluded with discussions about the potential size of these protected areas. Several members responded with estimates ranging from 24 acres to areas that would require two-day trips to traverse. Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine stated her preferred size was “Baxter State Park.”

It is not hard to imagine why Representative Carr and I were concerned with the secretive nature of this committee, as well as the very controversial policy discussions occurring with no participation by members of Maine’s traditional access community. After learning of the existence of the Maine Backcountry Project, we met with DOC Deputy Commissioner Karin Tilberg and several of her staff within the Bureau of Parks and Lands to discuss our concerns.

We stressed our objections to these meetings in Department of Conservation facilities, without public notice, as well as the one sided make-up of the committee. We were assured that members of the “other” user groups would be contacted.

As one might expect, Tilberg downplayed the significance of the Backcountry Project. She went on to explain that the DOC was just trying to map out places in Maine that could be marketed as a wilderness experience. We were told that the project was small and was nothing more than an attempt to showcase Maine as a destination for non-consumptive outdoor recreation. If only that were true.

To be continued in part two, Squeezing Out Traditional Users.

Click here for part two.