High Stakes Negotiations Over Fate of Katahdin Lake Tract

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 3/1/05

Already, Gardnerís harvesting crews have fragmented much of the T3R8 forest with roads and heavy logging.
(Photo: Al Cooper)
(See gallery of aerial photos)

Tortuous acquisition negotiations to protect the valuable East Branch lands in Township 3 Range 8 are not over yet, but landowner W. T. Gardner & Sons has stopped cutting old-growth forest around Katahdin Lake, at least temporarily. If the state is unable to pay the price that Gardner wants, the last of Maineís unsaved old-growth will fall, and the opportunity to expand Baxter State Park will be lost for now.

A deal among several parties hinges on a property appraisal. Sewall & Co. of Bangor expects to have a figure on the value by early April. If the number doesnít support what Gardner thinks the property is worth, the company plans to resume harvesting operations around Katahdin Lake. Also, without a deal, Gardner will apply to the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) for a permit to bridge Wassataquoik Stream to access its land on the north side of the waterway. The stream is known as the stateís wildest flowing water, its headwaters emanating from the slopes of mile-high Katahdin and the remote Klondike in Baxter Park.

Failure of a conservation success will almost assure that Gardner will develop the land or sell to another party who will. The Lincoln-based contracting company is well-experienced in converting its cut-over parcels into house lots. The company tried to subdivide the shorefront of several backcountry ponds north of Baxter Park in 1996, but LURC rejected the application. Developing pristine Katahdin Lake would almost certainly be of interest to Gardner because of the high prices lots would bring.

If the number doesnít support what Gardner thinks the property is worth, the company plans to resume harvesting operations around Katahdin Lake.
(Photos: Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps)

Already, Gardnerís harvesting crews have fragmented much of the T3R8 forest with roads and heavy logging. Haul roads have been extended east and north of the lake and east along the south shore of the Wassataquoik. A substantial number of old growth hardwoods and softwoods (120 years old-plus) have been cut, according to the conservation parties, undermining the landís wild character and its potential for wilderness recreation.

While holding off cutting for the next several weeks in the 6,098-acre area referred to by negotiators as the "Katahdin Lake tract," Gardnerís crews are again working again over the "valley" between the east side of the lake and west of Barnard Mountain. They harvested the area once, taking old growth and other mature trees just short of that status (120 years). But enough marketable timber was left to warrant a second harvesting sweep.

"Iím upset," says Charles FitzGerald, owner of Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps and a party in the negotiations. "Something special is being destroyed," he says. "Itís unnecessary and unfortunate. Iím furious at the state for having a forest policy that allows this to go on." The area had a potential to be "a wilderness Eden", if left intact and managed to minimize human intrusions, FitzGerald says.

Conservation philanthropist Roxanne Quimby, the other individual involved, says, "the unfortunate loss of another grand old forest in Maine should not be a surprise to anyone, given our collective indifference to the wholesale destruction of the environment everywhere on this planet." Ms. Quimby is the co-founder of the personal care products company Burt's Bees Inc.

Ralph Knoll, deputy director of the Department of Conservation (DOC), regrets that a purchase agreement couldnít be worked out earlier and the old growth trees spared. The timber cruise being done now as part of the appraisal will tell the tale of how much old growth Gardner actually has cut so far. But Knoll says he is more focused on whatís left on the stump and how to insure that the remaining old growth stands will be protected. No one from Gardner has been unwilling to comment.

Conservation leaders outside the negotiations have been holding their breath for more than a year, as news about the on-again, off-again talks leaked out. An agreement by Gardner with the state, FitzGerald and Quimby almost reached success earlier, only to fall apart. Gardnerís price kept increasing, even as loggers took more and more timber off the land. Also, the conservation parties had difficulties coming to terms among themselves on how their own deal would be structured for each to satisfy their different goals.

FitzGerald and Quimby are dedicated wilderness advocates, and they wanted to save the whole township and insisted that the land be managed as a wilderness area. While wanting to protect it all, the stateís priority was the 6,098-acre Katahdin Lake tract because of its extraordinary resource values and the desire to add it to Baxter Park, the stateís largest wilderness preserve.

T3R8 is considered to be the "crown jewel" of the lands along the East Branch of the Penobscot River. The 717-acre Katahdin Lake is a Class 1 water body, accessible only by foot or seaplane and is rated by LURC as having outstanding and or significant fisheries, scenic, shoreland, cultural and physical resources. Besides the old growth trees west of the lake, the log camps on the lakeís south shore are one-of-a-kind.

Katahdin Lake camps date back to around 1896. Explorers, scientists, politicians, sportsmen and loggers frequented the facilities over the years.
(Photos: Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps)

Katahdin Lake camps date back to around 1896. Explorers, scientists, politicians, sportsmen and loggers frequented the facilities over the years, but the place became important more for the famous artists it hosted Ė Frederick Church, Marsden Hartley, Carl Sprinchorn and James FitzGerald (no kin to Charles FitzGerald).

Park donor Percival P. Baxter planned to purchase T3R8 but died in 1969 before he could accomplish his goal. Most of the township, like others he had bought to create the park, had been harvested. But with no cutting in many years, it had healed. Ecologist Bart DeWolfe, hired by FitzGerald to inspect the area in 2004, found old growth red spruce from 133 to 304 years old and yellow birch and sugar maples from 134 to 243 years Ė and he took core samples from only a handful of trees.

Gardnerís strategy up to this point has been to take as much wood off T3R8 as quickly as possible but leave enough old growth to keep the conservation parties interested. The state let Gardner know from the beginning that it wouldnít pay more than the appraised value. The Land for Maineís Future Program, which likely would participate in the acquisition financing, has never been willing to pay landowners above-appraisal prices.

Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of RESTORE: the North Woods, views the Katahdin Lake forest as "the most important unprotected [tract] remaining in Maine." Itís not primeval, he acknowledges, but the ecosystem has healed since timber harvesting and fires a century ago. The recovered woods is one of the largest, perhaps the largest, block of mature forest in the state, he says. "The tremendous significance of the natural and human history there places [it] at the top of the list of urgent Maine land conservation priorities."

"Conservation-minded citizens shouldnít rely on miracles to save the Gardner tract," St. Pierre urges, "we need to write to the governor to stress how important it is to rescue this magnificent [land]."

Negotiations Drama

The East Branch lands include four townships located between Baxter Parkís eastern border and the western side of the East Branch of the Penobscot River.
(Photo: David Metsky)

The East Branch lands include four townships located between Baxter Parkís eastern border and the western side of the East Branch of the Penobscot River. For decades, the territory was part of the Great Northern Paper Co. domain until it was sold to Bowater Inc. Fraser Paper purchased half of T4R8, and Irving Woodlands acquired the other three-and-a-half townships covering 71,000 acres when Bowater left Maine in 1998. Irving put the lands up for sale in 2002.

The state, working through the non-profit Trust for Public Lands (TPL), and Charles FitzGerald separately tried to purchase all 71,000 acres. Then-Gov. Angus King and DOC commissioner Ron Lovaglio met with Irving Woodlands president Jim Irving in June, 2002, to try to convince the company to wait until the state could put together a purchase package. FitzGerald began working toward a purchase proposal of his own, after he bought historic Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps in late 2003 (see Phyllis Austin story).

But the state and FitzGerald had tough competition Ė major logging contractors-turned-developers. Companies that once harvested trees for the large pulp and paper companies diversified after the big firms began moving out of Maine in the late 1980s. The loggers became known as "forest liquidators" because they bought land to cut hard and subdivide for quick profits. Gardner fit the bill, but not more so than Herb Haynes, reputed to be the king of the liquidators. Both companies wanted the East Branch lands and put in successful bids. So did Roxanne Quimby.

Gardner and Haynes bought 47,000 acres from Irving in T2R8, T3R8 and the southern half of T4R8 for a reported $30 million in 2003. Quimby bought T5R8, a 24,000-acre township bordering Baxter Parkís most northern area with the Traveler mountain range. She paid $12 million (see Phyllis Austin story). Quimbyís management plan was immediately controversial among local people. There would be no timber harvesting, hunting, trapping or motorized access tin T5R8, she said. Fraser was suddenly without a route to market because it had used Irvingís T5R8 roads, the only truck access out of the woods.

Once they had bought the land from Irving, Gardner and Haynes divvied up the 47,000 acres, with Gardner getting 24,000 acres in T3R8. Gardner immediately began extending the Rocky Pond Road north of Katahdin Brook and building a network of feeder roads. The state, still hoping to negotiate an acquisition deal with Gardner, convinced the company to avoid the old growth area between the park and Katahdin Lake, according to FitzGerald. In its 2001 management plan, Irving had identified 5,350 acres with "characteristics of the old and very old forests . . . These area are located [around] Katahdin Lake."

Gardnerís first harvesting target was the "valley", and the siting of the logging roads up slopes and knolls seemed to point to intentions to develop the higher ground, with extraordinary views of Katahdin Lake and Baxter Parkís mountain ranges.

Alarmed, FitzGerald decided to go for broke to buy out Gardner, even if it was a risky financial move. "This parcel has the largest roadless, relatively intact old growth forest left in Maine unprotected, and it is too rare, too special to lose," he said months ago, justifying the millions of dollars offer he was willing to invest.

FitzGerald sat down with Bill Gardner and his son, Tom, and offered them a $3 million non-refundable downpayment on the 24,000 acres. He proposed a phased purchase that would give him time to raise whatever money it took to satisfy Gardner. There were numerous meetings, and at one time FitzGerald says he made "a colossal (unsuccessful) offer of $20 million" for the land.

To raise the $3 million downpayment, FitzGerald was prepared to borrow against his real estate at St. Markís Place in New York. In addition, he envisioned a national capital campaign would have to be launched to raise millions of dollars from individuals and groups.

FitzGerald has never been one to think small or cower at large financial challenges. He founded the popular Board & Bowl chain of wood products stores in the 1960s and owned several buildings in New York City. In a bold move to protect the Nahmakanta/Debsconeag lakes area south of Baxter Park in the late 1980s, FitzGerald put down a $1 million non-refundable deposit. The landowner, Diamond Occidental Forest, refused to extend FitzGeraldís deadline for coming up with the rest of the money to buy 61,000 acres of the companyís "highest and best use" lands. (The state acquired those lands in 1990).

FitzGerald also lost tens of thousands of dollars in protecting forestlands around his former home in Atkinson in the Alder Stream watershed. However, due to his years of work, he, along with Northeast Wilderness Trust and Sweet Water Trust, have protected about 17,000 acres there. FitzGerald still owns about 12,000 acres.

Once they had bought the land from Irving, Gardner and Haynes divvied up the 47,000 acres, with Gardner getting 24,000 acres in T3R8.
(Map: DeLorme)

Gardner stonewalled FitzGerald on the T3R8 land. Consequently, the state and FitzGerald joined forces in order to pool enough resources to cause Gardner to get serious about selling. FitzGerald, Knoll, Bureau of Parks and Lands director Dave Soucy, and TPL director Sam Hodder haggled intensely to find common ground. "There were endless meetings," says FitzGerald. Too, there were endless disagreements over details of a package to present to Gardner.

Part of the arrangement with Gardner from the beginning was confidentiality. FitzGerald struggled over whether to remain a party to negotiations or to go public to try to force Gardner to stop cutting and spare the old growth forest. But he stuck with the private process, convincing Roxanne Quimby to enter into the talks last summer. Quimby had already spent $20 million to purchase 50,000 acres of forestland, and she agreed to offer an exchange of lands with Gardner.

It took months for the parties to agree on the specifics of a written purchase-and-sales agreement to present to Gardner. On January 7, 2005, TPLís Hodder, mistakenly sent an email to a reporter named Quimby at the Portland Press Herald outlining the plan for the trio to acquire all of T3R8 (see PPH article). Hodderís letter reflected the excitement over adding "the last piece of Governor Baxterís puzzle and key to his original vision" for the park. The Bangor Daily News followed with news of an impending deal.

FitzGerald, Quimby and the state met on January 20, believing they would finally sign off on the deal they thought Gardner would accept. BPLís Soucy met first with Quimby and reconfirmed her decision to contribute her land Ė 5,800 acres of T8R11 west of the Big Reed Preserve and the 12,000 acres of T5R8 on the east side of the East Branch (with the ITS 85 snowmobile trail and the Bowlin sporting camp).

The value of the land and the money being offered approximated about what Gardner paid Irving, according to Quimby. She notes that Gardner had heavily cut about 7,000 acres in the valley, already recouping some of the companyís purchase cost. With a uniform stocking of 39 cords per acre throughout the 24,000 acres, there was one guess that Gardner had realized several million dollars from wood sales, partly due to the high prices for old-growth.

FitzGerald went after Quimby to go over his part of the deal with Soucy. For $3 million, he would get 2,000 acres of the 6,098 acres, and the state would get the rest. FitzGerald was willing to donate a no development/no harvesting easement on the land to the state and guarantee that the camps would remain primitive wilderness facilities. He was willing to give the state the first refusal if he decided to sell the land and the camps. He was willing to give verbal permission for pedestrian access over his land to Katahdin Lake on the traditional footpath from Avalanche Field in Baxter Park.

But at the end of the day, FitzGerald and the state couldnít come to terms. An agreement among the three parties was off.

The state agreed to step aside to see if FitzGerald and Quimby could buy directly from Gardner. A third party met with Gardner on behalf of FitzGerald and Quimby. FitzGerald offered $10 million, and she, about 19,000 acres of timberland for the whole township. They were informed on January 26 that Gardner rejected the offer and made no counter-offer.

No matter how much money they offered, FitzGerald and Quimby were a hard duo for the Gardners to be associated. Both have been big supporters of RESTOREís 3.2 million-acre national park plan around Baxter Park Ė an unpopular proposal in the Greenville/Millinocket/Patten area. In particular, Quimby has been a political lightning rod since purchasing T5R8, angering locals over her management plans.

With FitzGerald and Quimby out of the picture, the state prepared to move forward with its own proposal to Gardner, albeit smaller. But the situation changed once again, and FitzGerald and Quimby were back in negotiations with the state on a joint strategy.

FitzGerald found out in January that Gardner had begun cutting to the south of his camps and cutting old growth there too. There was flagging to indicate that loggers were preparing to go into the old growth zone that everyone had seemed to agree was off limits. The state was already aware that Gardnerís crews were near the camps but hadnít alerted FitzGerald, he says. He felt betrayed.

Park donor Percival P. Baxter planned to purchase T3R8 but died in 1969 before he could accomplish his goal.

"Gardner crossed the line," FitzGerald says. "They knew the state would forgive them. I was furious they didnít tell me." FitzGerald contends that the "driving agenda" for the state, on behalf of the Baxter Park Authority, has been to acquire the land around Katahdin Lake with or without the old growth forest saved.

Still, despite the difficult relationships and lack of trust among the parties, they made an offer to Gardner through TPLís Hodder. The offer continued to include Quimbyís exchange lands but this time had less cash coming from FitzGerald, who thus would end up with less land.

Gardner didnít reject the offer out of hand and agreed to an appraisal by the state. It was then, in mid-February, that the state demanded Gardner stop cutting in the Katahdin Lake area for the time it took for an appraisal.

FitzGerald is discouraged, and he doesnít know if he is in or out of a deal with the state. Neither is Quimby sure what her position is, although she hasnít withdrawn her land exchange offer. The state may go it alone on the Katahdin Lake parcel, and Ralph Knoll confirms that the 6,000-acre tract is the place the state is focusing on at the moment.

"To a great degree," the Katahdin Lake area is "wrecked," FitzGerald claims, relying on fly-overs and a ground report from his wilderness camps manager Al Cooper, the former owner of the facility. (See gallery of aerial photos)

If there is money to purchase land beyond Katahdin Lake, the stateís second priority in the township would be the approximately 12,500 acres north of the Wassataquoik that hasnít been cut by Gardner and contains some old-growth, says Knoll. Whether the harvested "valley" will be purchased by the state remains questionable, he says. But thatís a situation where Roxanne Quimby could come to the rescue.

From her own business experience, Quimby believes that a deal with Gardner "boils down to money. If you throw enough money and land, we could do it quickly," she says. But Quimby points out that the state has little cash, since the Land for Maineís Future bond money has been depleted. (A new land bond issues is winding its way through the legislature.) Quimby feels she has offered enough personally with her exchange lands and wonít offer millions in cash. "I donít feel itís my duty to save the state" by writing a big check, she says.

Quimby understands that Gardner "wants the best deal he can get," like any business person." Every day that cutting continues, itís "a good day for Gardner and good for the state because [the land] becomes less expensive. I donít think anyone is motivated to act quickly except those who want to save the forest," she says.

FitzGerald doesnít know how the situation will affect his wilderness camps. If Gardner retains the land, the company could terminate his 31-acre lease, he says. Likewise, if the park acquires it, the park could end his lease and operate the camps itself. FitzGerald paid $395,000 for the camps.

Bridge Across the Wassataquoik?

Rumors have persisted that Gardner will try to bridge the Wassataquoik to cut the north side of T3R8. Gardner has been advised by the state that an application could spawn a "blood bath" with the environmental opponents.

The stream is the least developed watershed in the east, and the Maine Natural Areas Program (MNAP) has identified 357 acres as a Unique Site containing red spruce, white pine and red pine from 133 to 183 years old. (Ecologist DeWolfe, now working for Quimby, believes that MNAP has not surveyed the area well and not identified the extent of the old-growth).

The Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) has a 775-acre ecological reserve at the confluence of the stream and the East Branch. Both sides of the stateís land have mature white pine amid a multi-aged forest of hardwoods and softwood. On the north bank, there are large superstory white pines over a canopy of hemlock, spruce, pine and poplar. The south bank has no huge pines but does contain large hemlock, sugar maple, popular and spruce Ė some of them over a century old.

"Every day that cutting continues," says Quimby, "itís a good day for Gardner and good for the state because [the land] becomes less expensive. I donít think anyone is motivated to act quickly except those who want to save the forest."

The floodplain of the East Branch on either side of the mouth of the Wassataquoik is a relatively undisturbed hardwood floodplain forest more than a mile long, according to MNAP. The forest is terraced Ė a rare find Ė with maples forming an arching canopy over a carpet of tall ferns and other herbs.

BPL has a small bridge over the stream to its reserve unit. The stateís land borders Quimbyís lands. That means that the existing bridge would do Gardner no good unless Quimby approved the use of roads on her lands and eliminated the companyís need for their own access bridge.

However the East Branch deal turns out, Quimby is tired of the hostile atmosphere toward her in the north woods. "After every dart that has been thrown at me, Iíve lost my appetite to save [northern Maine lands beyond] what Iíve saved already," she says.

Quimby will redirect her investments to the Maine coast. She has a home in Winter Harbor on the border of Acadia National Park. Aware of the financial strain the park is under, Quimby is interested in helping out and believes the coast is friendlier to private conservation initiatives.

Go to archive of Phyllis Austin Reports for Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org).