Cutting and Selling the Gems of Maine's North Woods

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 1/29/03

LandVest Inc. is marketing a 25,531-acre parcel including Loon and Caucomgomoc lakes for $15 million.
Map: Portland Press Herald

A North Woods gem that conservationists were hoping to protect from development is up for sale as a "kingdom" tract. LandVest Inc., which specializes in high-end timberland sales, is marketing a 25,531-acre parcel including Loon and Caucomgomoc lakes for $15 million, or $587 an acre.

The land is part of 329,000 acres currently owned by McDonald Investment Co. of Birmingham, Ala., and once was part of the old Great Northern Paper’s West Branch domain. A much-touted conservation easement has been in the making for several years for the McDonald land and a like-sized tract now owned by Merriweather LLC. Now there are questions about how a sale of the Loon Lake parcel (as it is being called by LandVest) would affect the easement plan, known popularly as the West Branch Project.

Alan Hutchinson, executive director of The Forest Society of Maine, the organization spearheading the easement campaign, is unsure what the effect of a Loon Lake sale would be for that piece of land. "Our sense is there’s no reason to panic," he says. It could turn out that a buyer would be as open to a conservation easement as McDonald, he speculates.

In the meantime, Hutchinson says, The Forest Society is "entirely focused" on raising $10 million in private funds to purchase a protective easement on the full 329,000 acres owned by Merriweather to the west of the McDonald lands. "It’s a lot of work and a lot of money to raise in a short time," he says. "Things are going great. It’s a unique opportunity in time that we’ll never see again."

There are rumors in the conservation community that LandVest approached McDonald with the idea of a sale to test the waters for kingdom sales (generally to wealthy individuals) in the Allagash region. Gary Bahlkow, the LandVest agent handling the marketing, declined to answer the question. "That’s privileged information," he says.

"The bottom line is that these are business people," says Hutchinson. "What this [new kingdom offering] tells us and the world is that contrary to what some people believe these forestlands are under pressure."

LandVest is also marketing a 10,173-acre forest in the Ingalls Valley in Riley and Newry.

The LandVest ad publicizes the Loon Lake property, between Moosehead and Allagash lakes, as having "miles and miles of [water] frontage" and near the West Branch of the Penobscot River, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Baxter State Park and "legendary Mount Katahdin." It also contains Caucomgomoc and Hurd mountains. LandVest’s website has a digital postcard of the property that can be sent through cyberspace to potentially interested parties.

Another high-profile parcel that was being offered by LandVest, the "Katahdin Forest," is now "off the market," says Bahlkow. "I’d soon not comment" on why, he says. That parcel, in the Gulf Hagas/White Cap Mt. region encompasses about 11,000 acres and was for sale for $11 million. It’s still for sale by owner Hancock Timber Resources. Several conservation groups have been interested in the property and remain so but consider the price too steep.

LandVest is marketing a 10,173-acre forest in the Ingalls Valley in Riley and Newry. Sale price for $4 million, or about $393 an acre. The property is across the Androscoggin River from the White Mountain National Forest in western Maine. It abuts the public reserved land encompassing the Mahoosuc mountain range and features Sunday River White Cap Mt. and numerous other peaks and brooks.

The LandVest activity reflects the continuing strength of real estate investment at the beginning of 2003 amid a still-beleagured stock market. Last year was marked with a kingdom sale twice as large in acreage as the Loon Lake parcel, and timber liquidators also bought significant tracts from forest products companies and individuals with sizeable holdings.

"The large, undivided and undeveloped tracts of forestland in Maine are, in themselves, a rare economic, ecological and cultural asset," observes Karin Tilberg, acting director of the Northern Forest Alliance. "We are starting to lose them. The enormous volume of land sales in the past five years, combined with new investment owners, are leading to forest fragmentation, liquidation and development," she says. "With the erosion of this incredible forest resource comes the loss of traditional access and a unique relationship that Maine people have with the forests, wildlife and lakes in the North Woods."

Information on land sales and prices for the unorganized territory (half of Maine) is available at the property tax office in Augusta, which receives copies of all sales transfer documents.

Media billionaire John Malone purchased the 53,524-acre "Frontier Forest" near Jackman for $14 million. (See Phyllis Austin story on that sale)

Media billionaire John Malone purchased the 53,524-acre "Frontier Forest" near Jackman for $14 million, or just over $261 an acre, pushing his Maine land holdings to almost 70,000 acres. The land owned by Great Eastern Timber Co. LLC (whose parent is John Hancock Insurance) was marketed by LandVest at $17,750,000. It has an estimated timber capital value of $28 million, according to LandVest.

The tract contains almost a dozen sizeable ponds, three major streams and mountainous terrain that are valued by recreationists. It abuts the state’s Holeb public land unit and the conservation easement land in Attean Township. Malone’s other major parcel around Spencer Lake is south of the new holding. He paid Plum Creek Timber $7.5 million for 7,500 acres, or $1,000 an acre, and earlier had paid International Paper $3.5 million for 7,400 acres, or about $472 an acre.

Timber harvesting is continuing on Malone’s land. He has hired Wagner Forest Management Co. to manage the Frontier Forest parcel, and cutting is occurring on a 2,238-acre parcel in Forsythe Township and on a 500-acre area in Dennistown, according to the Maine Forest Service, which requires notification of timber harvest activity.

In Aroostook County, there was a big sale in 2002 on Square Lake to the state’s most well-known timber liquidator, Herb Haynes. Liquidators are so-called because of their practice to strip a parcel of trees and resell it quickly for development to recoup their investment costs and more.

Lakeville Shores Inc., the development arm of H. C. Haynes Inc. logging company, purchased 4,116 acres, including 4.2 miles of Square Lake’s shoreline, from William Moscovic. Haynes paid $4,020,240, or $912 an acre, and he is harvesting the woods now.

Square Lake, south of Madawaska, is one of Aroostook’s largest lakes, with famed landlocked salmon and wild brook trout fisheries. Relatively undeveloped, it has beckoned anglers from faraway places for decades and at one time had a popular commercial sporting camp.

Karin Tilberg calls the sales price "shocking. We all need to pay attention to the enormous increase in values attributed to lakeshores that are quickly outpacing our ability" to keep them open for public access.

Moscovic says he didn’t ask the buyer’s representatives -- Hayne’s son, Jay, and son-in-law, Kevin Matthews -- if they were going to sell off house lots after cutting the property. "I would be very sorry to see it developed," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Paradise, Pa. "It’s beautiful, beautiful land. I fished there two or three times a year, and sometimes I’d just sit there for hours," he says.

Square Lake, south of Madawaska, has beckoned anglers from faraway places for decades

Moscovic was "very sad when I signed my name" to the deed transferring ownership of the property because it brought to an end his land ownership in Maine, a place he had loved since 1949 when he first visited the state.

A native of Czechoslovakia, Moscovic emigrated to New York after World War II. He "had been involved in forestry" in his homeland, so when he reached America, he started investing in land. He lost his first $250 trying to buy some land and a sawmill in Aroostook County more than 50 years ago, but Moscovic, who worked in a lumber yard in New York City for years, returned to invest in Maine.

He owned land in Eagle Lake and Stockholm and at one time was "paying $60,000 to $70,000 a year in property taxes, he says. "My age wouldn’t let me continue" to own the land, Moscovic says "I’m pushing 90. It was time to liquidate." The state had approached Moscovic some years ago about buying the land, but the discussion went nowhere.

Jackie Webber, a member of the Land Use Regulation Commission who lives on Cross Lake next to Square Lake, says there’s some camp development on the north side for a couple of miles where a boat landing is located. Across from that, there are more camps, she says. At the most easterly cove, the defunct sporting camp is being renovated by a private owner, according to fisheries biologist Frank Frost of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW).

Future development could be an issue because of potential nutrient runoff affecting Square Lake’s health, says Frost. There’s already stress on the lake from nutrients coming in from upstream lakes -- Cross, Long and Mud, he explains.

Logging is already occurring in the shoreline zone, according to Jim Blanck of the forest service. Lakeville Shores’ harvesting notification said that cutting will occur over a two-year period on 3,500 acres of the 4,116 acres, ending in August, 2004. The filing said there will be no clearcutting.

Herb Haynes continued to build his companies’ land base with other large purchases last year. From SP Forests (International Paper Co.), he bought land with waterfront in Township 14 in Washington county for $2,760,000 and on the same day sold part of it to Arthur Houlihan of Florida for $575,000. Haynes’ Lakeville Shores also purchased 4,359 acres in Township 2 Range 4 W.E.L.S. from Hank McPherson’s Sylvan Properties Inc. for $385,000, or just under $90 an acre.

Lakeville Shores also was a seller, spinning off land in Strong, New Vineyard and Freeman to logging contractor Thorndike & Sons Inc. of Avon for $1,674,050. Haynes’ companies were the major buyers of former United Timber land when the Stowell family company filed bankruptcy. The Stowells owned 90,000 acres in many communities in the western mountains area, and the land sale created a field day for Haynes and smaller-size contractors looking for liquidation opportunities and business growth.

A sale that raised developments concerns in Greenville was Moose Island, a wild peninsula with significant shoreline on Moosehead Lake. Louis Hilton of Palm Beach, Florida, sold the peninsula to Olde Florida Land Co. of Coconut Grove, Fla., for $1.5 million.

Craig Watt of Friends of Moosehead said there’s a lot of "uncertainty about what’s going to happen to the land. It has a beautiful beach" that was open to public access, he says. "It’s very popular because it’s not far from downtown and easy to get to by boat."

Jim Confalone, owner of Big Squaw Mt. ski resort, reportedly controls the Olde Florida Land Co. too, according to local sources. They call him a developer because he previously bought a tract of land in Greenville and subdivided it for housing.

Wayne and Maxine Farrar, former Houlton residents who now live in Florida, continued to reduce their timberland holdings. Hanington Bros. of Kingman, a logging contractor, paid the Farrars $1,675,000 for forestland in several townships west of Sherman Mills and Interstate 95. In other deals, the Farrars sold another 10,000 acres or more to various private buyers and completed conservation easement and fee land sales to the state on Mattawamkeag Lake.

The Farrars declined to discuss their land sales, referring questions to Elbridge Cleaves of Prentiss & Carlisle Management Co. Inc. in Bangor. He says they are not divesting themselves of all their Maine property. The deal with Steve Hanington, "who is well-known and respected, seemed the right thing to do," he added.

Maine Timberlands sold leased land on the West Branch of the Penobscot River to Chewonki Foundation for $250,000.

Lyme Northern Forest Fund Ltd. Partnerships bought 5,760 acres of former Diamond Occidental land in Township 34MD in Hancock County from Rene Bernard Inc. of Jackman for $935,000, or $162 an acre. Dale Henderson Logging bought SP Forests’ 719-acre Chick Hill parcel, also in Hancock County, for $503,300, or $700 an acre. Conservationists are working to protect nearby lands that the IP entity is selling.

Maine Timberlands, a subsidiary of the now-bankrupt Great Northern Paper Co., was busy raising money by selling off land. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) paid the company $28 million, or $683 an acre, for 41,000 acres around the Debsconeag Lakes area south of Baxter State Park.

A couple of weeks later, Maine Timberlands sold leased land on the West Branch of the Penobscot River in Township 3, Range 11 to Chewonki Foundation for $250,000. The land was under the Big Eddy campground facilities that Chewonki had bought for its outdoor education and camp programs for $375,000 in May.

Don Hudson, who heads the Wiscasset-based foundation, says the parcel is about 75 acres in size on both sides of the West Branch – on the south side between the Golden Road and the river and on the north side from the Telos Road to the old bridge across the river. Maine Timberlands gave them just hours to make the decision. But it was an easy decision to make, Hudson says, because the opportunity "was remarkable."

Maine Timberlands also sold land in T1,R10 to the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) for $300,000. Bob Williams, spokesman for the ATC at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, explained that the organization purchased outright 1,700 acres along the trail corridor in the Lower Jo Mary-Pemadumcook lakes area to enhance protection of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) corridor. The land is in TAR10 W.E.L.S. and T1R10 W.E.L.S and includes the well-known Antlers campsite and part of the trail that provides superb views of Katahdin from the southwest shore of Pemadumcook.

"We’ve always been interested in protecting this part of the trail," says Williams. The A. T. continues through T1R11 to the boundary of Baxter State Park. It was pretty much a take it or leave it deal," he says. "We took it." While the land was already protected by a state easement, Williams says Maine Timberlands still could cut in some areas. He thought the $250 an acre price was a good deal for the seller, since the forest "probably wasn’t as valuable" as other unencumbered timberlands.

Maine Timberlands, desperate for revenue, sold more than a half million worth of leased lots to owners on lakes near Millinocket. Other large landowners also continued to sell off waterfront lots to lessees.

Click here to see panoramic Loon Lake property photo from LandVest website.
Click here to visit the Loon Lake listing on LandVest's website.

Phyllis Austin Reports for Maine Environmental News.