September 21, 2020

Maine's Governmental Leaders Have Messed Up – The Saga of Baxtergate

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The Baxter land swap deal has turned into a political quandry. Maybe we should begin calling it Baxtergate. In all my years, I have never seen a secret negotiation involving the public trust, end positively. What were the government and government run entities thinking when they began the negotiations for the land swap? Maybe their intentions were good but to carry out this proposal to the point of agreeing to all finer points without input from the public has been disastrous and will prove to be a total embarassment to the Baldacci camp.

The skepticism runs high from Maine residents and out-of-state interests as well. If you would like to get an idea of a cross section of ideas and opinions, visit the Portland Press Herald’s story by John Richarson that ran on February 28, 2006. At the end of the article is a list – at the time of this writing had 41 comments – of comments collected as a result of just this article. The article is an opinion piece, so use your judgement when viewing the comments and remember the newpaper is a southern Maine publication which may not be expressing views of a greater sampling of Maine residents. The idea is to sample how differing the opinions of readers are and how they perceive things.

What has made this entire deal a debacle, is citizens had to run to Augusta to voice their concerns, comments and suggestions without first knowing facts. This is what happens when deals are decided on behind taxpayers backs. How can intelligent taxpayers and outdoor zealouts know how they line up on a passionate issue such as this one without first having facts. Did all the secret negotiators not believe this would be a much heated debate? Or, maybe they did.

It seems that we, the general public and I had no prior knowledge, were only told what the negotiators of the deal wanted us to know. And why would that be? This is what happens when things go secret and information withheld. You and I are left to assume. What is there to hide?

By the time this deal is either approved, re-negotiated or dead, we will not know but a very small percentage of what has transpired over the last three years of talks between all parties. This is a big loss to the Maine citizens and it now drives a wedge causing us to be distrusting of the Baldacci administration, the Baxter Park Authority, the Bureau of Parks and Lands, the Trust for Public Lands, the list goes on. (Sorry if I left someone off this VIP list).

This act is causing strife in many places. The little town of Millincocket, Maine is warring with its town council among others. They have been at odds for some time but this issue has further inflammed bad blood between townspeople and the council members. It seems the issue of the Baxter land swap, which is in their back yard, has citizens there upset for many reasons. Their livelihood depends upon the forests, the lakes, the park and nobody invited them into negotiations.

At a time when Mainers, just coming off a battle over bear hunting two years ago, should be banding together, we are being driven apart. Comments being made that refer to us and them. Hunters calling people names, non-hunters putting down the sport. Both sides of the aisle often get bum raps because they are misunderstood and ignorance refuses us to know what drives the other’s passions.

Do we know more today than yesterday? I think so. For those of us who did not attend the hearings on Monday, George Smith, Executive Director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, posted his remarks to the Committee at the SAM web site. I’ll leave his remarks for you to read if your interested.

What did interest me the most from his comments was some tidbits of information he presented to the Committee and the audience. According to what Smith wrote, he had no idea about this plan until last fall. At that time he says he was told the deal was done.

My first briefing on this project occurred last fall, from the Baxter Park Authority: Attorney General Steve Rowe, Commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Dan Martin, and Maine Forest Service Director Alec Giffin. They told me they’d already decided to accept the parcel with the conditions that hunting, snowmobiling, and other current and traditional uses would be banned, although they said they were having some trouble convincing the Baxter family to support the project.

I find it a bit intriguing that this group was having trouble convincing the Baxter family to support the project. Why? I would assume that they would want to fulfill the late Governor Baxter’s dream. Maybe the Baxter family could see through the underhandedness.
Maybe you knew, maybe you didn’t. I didn’t know this.

Twenty five percent of Baxter Park is open to hunting: 51,000 acres, open to hunting in Baxter Park. Keeping this Katahdin Lake parcel open to hunting is not unprecedented, or even unusual.

And this is how it happened.

“By the end of 1954 he (Baxter) felt sufficiently pressured into maintaining the good will of the people in the area and of legislators to ask the governor and legislature to amend the deeds of trust of 1949 for lands in T6R9, north of Trout Brook, removing restrictions on the use of firearms, hunting, and trapping in the area. The lands were removed from the game sanctuary. This was done, he said, when he ‘learned that the closing of this area might be detrimental to the citizens in Patten and surrounding territory who operate stores and camps.’ In his last deeds for land in T6R9, T6R10, and T2,R9, he did not impose the restriction.”

Smith further writes about finding information on whose idea it was to ban hunting and trapping from this land deal.

Following my first briefing by the Baxter Authority, I met with a representative of The Trust for Public Land and staff at the Department of Conservation. In that meeting, I was told that it was the private donors to this project who wanted to ban hunting. They had to be accommodated to make the project attractive.

Through continued meetings with the Department of Conservation, Smith was able to find out who some of the larger donors were to this project. He found out one and contacted them.

I kept meeting and talking with DOC officials, and eventually I discovered who one of the large donors is – and I talked with that large donor. In fact, I have talked with that large donor more than once. And I am pleased to report, from my first conversation to my most recent, this large donor has firmly supported hunting on the Katahdin Lake parcel.

And then he had a second donor contact him.

Just last week I was contacted by a second large donor – with the same result. This large donor does not oppose hunting and other traditional activities on this parcel. It is not the donors who insist that hunting be banned. Commissioner McGowan has confirmed this to me and I have heard him say it in other meetings as well.

And here’s an interesting jewel. You can take this however you choose but the bottom line is I think the Governor should know what’s going on.

When Ed Pineau and I met with Governor Baldacci on February 13 to discuss this project, the Governor expressed strong support for our position, and told us he’d never been informed that hunting and snowmobiling would be banned on the Katahdin Lake parcel. He was not happy. He asked Commissioner McGowan, who attended our meeting, to redo the deal and restore hunting and snowmobiling on the parcel.

We have all been blindsided by authorities who have gone beyond what they should have to acheive this land swap. Because the public was left in the dark for three years, their plans have backfired, regardless of whether a compromise is reached in time to save the deal.

The focus of these discussions seem to be on whether hunting should be allowed or not or perhaps it is because I am making it my focus. There are some real issues that we shouldn’t lose sight of no matter how we feel about the plan. To some extent, small towns and communities in and around all the lands affected by a land swap, will be influenced – maybe to a much greater degree than most of us realize.

There are also privately owned camps and businesses on Katahdin Lake that stand a good chance of going out of business and we all have lost sight of the fact that Gardner Land Co. is a viable business with rights and a say in this matter. They have every right to work within the laws that govern them to harvest their timber and manage their forest how they see fit. It is giving of them to be willing to sit down and talk about this before they cut down their money wood. But they can’t wait for ever. They have bills to pay too.

I have made my opinions known that I support all recreational use of this land or I am agreeable to a plan of replacing public lands lost from the deal. But, no matter which side of this debate you line up on, we have all been shafted by Baxtergate. Once again, the taxpayer loses.

Tom Remington

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