Controversy Over Baxter Park Logging Plan

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 3/11/05

Director Buzz Caverly asked the three-member Authority to stop the planned cutting, but they declined. When people enter the park, they are "looking for a wilderness experience, not a forest management experience."
(Photo: SFMA)

Tree harvesting operations along the major thoroughfare in the northern end of "forever wild" Baxter State Park will confront visitors next fall, and the director of the preserve and the resource manager are on opposite sides of the issue.

At a meeting of the Baxter Park Authority on March 8, director Buzz Caverly said he was having "a tough time" with the roadside cutting plan. When people enter the park, they are "looking for a wilderness experience, not a forest management experience," he said. Caverly asked the three-member Authority, the park’s policymakers, to stop the planned cutting, but they declined.

Jensen Bissell, the resource manager who oversees the Scientific Forest Management Area (SFMA), initiated the project as a way to demonstrate exemplary forestry management and harvesting to "a larger and new audience." There will be informational handouts at the park’s two entrance gates, and a vehicle turnout spot with a kiosk and signboard will be created to educate people about the cutting.

Most visitors just driving by the section being harvested probably won’t notice the operation because the cut will be light, Bissell said, and he didn’t think there would be much noise from the logging machines.

However John Lloyd, a former member of the Authority’s Advisory Committee, expressed concern over forcing a harvesting operation on people going to the park because of its wilderness environment. He doubted that the sound of logging will be so low as to not be heard by visitors and warned that the operation may be a "potential public relations problem" for the park

Bissell planned the project with the SFMA Advisory Committee, and it is in keeping with the SFMA management plan; thus, a vote from the Authority was not legally required for the project to go forward. However, the trustees had the power to stop it if they had wanted.

The SFMA cutting was one of two contentious matters before the Authority. Chief ranger Chris Drew presented the staff plan to move the campground at Nesowadnehunk Stream. John Lloyd questioned the relocation to nearby fields along the Tote Road. He said it will be aesthetically unpleasing to campers and is the latest in a series of less-than-ideal shelter relocations, specifically the leantos at Hudson Pond on the Freezeout Trail in the SFMA and those specifically for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers near Katahdin Stream campground.

Baxter Park Scientific Forest Management Area

Under Bissell’s leadership, the SFMA received green certification by the SmartWood Program of the Rainforest Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation.
(Photo: Bob Seymour)

The SFMA is a 28,537-acre area that the late Gov. Baxter set aside from the wildlife sanctuary of the park for "scientific forestry" practices. "In my travels in foreign lands, I have seen beautiful great forests that for centuries have been producing a crop of wood without depletion . . . I want this township to become a show place for those interested in forestry . . . an example and an inspiration to others, " Baxter wrote then Gov. Edmund Muskie in 1955.

The SFMA is between the Tote Road and the north and west park boundaries and includes all of Township 6, Range 10 and a part of Township 6 Range 9. It includes about 14 percent of the 204,333-acre park, while more than 80 percent of the rest of the preserve is designated sanctuary, where harvesting is prohibited.

An extensive road network has been built in the SFMA to allow loggers to access the area. The Wadleigh Brook logging road was extended to within one-quarter mile of where the Tote Road crosses Trout Brook, thus providing the opportunity to carry out roadside harvesting there.

The project would be limited at this point to 1,100 feet of the Tote Road in the so-called Legal Mile, the only place where the SFMA is on both sides of the road. The plan calls for removal of the overstory of 80-90-year-old aspen, which will release spruce and pine undergrowth.

Forester Bissell has managed the SFMA since 1986, a time following controversy about abusive cutting practices that had taken place when the Maine Forest Service was overseeing operations. Harvesting was brought to a halt for a few years while the park hired its first staff forester (Bissell) and developed a plan for the SFMA. Under Bissell’s leadership, the SFMA received green certification by the SmartWood Program of the Rainforest Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation. After being a drain on the park’s finances, the SFMA contributes about $121,000 a year in revenues from timber sales.

Bissell thinks the park shouldn’t be shy about showcasing the SFMA. He conceded that since the Legal Mile has never been marked and identified as part of the SFMA, "visitors may be confused" by the harvesting operation. To minimize the visual impact, he said cutting will be lighter in a "transition buffer" at roadside. The overall harvest "will be low intensity to begin with," he added.

Bissell told the Authority that the harvest would be targeted for mid-September when visitation in the northern end of the park is low. A staff person will be available at the information kiosk for up to three days to answer questions about the project.

An extensive road network has been built in the SFMA to allow loggers to access the area.
(Photo: SFMA)

Maine Forest Service director Alec Giffen, a member of the Authority, commented that Bissell was carrying out the kind of "exemplary forestry" that Gov. Baxter had in mind. Giffen’s position is that the project will be "publicly beneficial", since most park visitors never get into the SFMA. "A lot of what Jensen is doing is mimicking natural processes." Since the aspen is already mature, it will "be dying and dropping out of the stands anyway, he said. "We’re capturing the material and making useful things."

Park director Caverly, noting that he knew Gov. Baxter personally, couldn’t imagine that Baxter would approve cutting along the Tote Road. He recalled the "tug of war" between Baxter and the state highway department in the 1960s over cutting roadside brush. He mentioned other areas in the SFMA where cutting is not allowed, such as designated "critical areas" and old growth stands.

Caverly took responsibility for the situation getting to the point that he and Bissell were at odds. As the park’s chief administrator, he said he doesn’t get out into the field as much as he would like and hadn’t paid attention to the fact that the Wadleigh logging road had been extended so close to Trout Brook Crossing. He made a tour of the area on his snowmobile last week, and "it was a shock to me – a very stressful shock. Listen to this old ranger," said Caverly, asking the trustees to "provide a little mercy".

But the Authority didn’t heed Caverly’s plea to intervene in the cutting plan. Member Dan Martin, also commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, was concerned that Caverly would oppose Bissell’s project at a public meeting. "I’m concerned with the process that just took place," Martin said. "It’s highly unusual. What we’ve experienced is a presentation of the staff and the director has reservations. It should be discussed, resolved and ironed out before," he said. Authority chairman Steve Rowe, the state’s attorney general, also was concerned "at what I just saw, and surprised as well."

John Lloyd was "really concerned" about the roadside harvesting plan. He hunts, fishes and backpacks in the SFMA, and when in the area knows he will confront signs, past cutting areas and active harvesting operations. "When you’re walking there, you’re comfortable with what’s going on," he said.

Alec Giffen, Governor Baldacci, Buzz Caverly, Dan Martin
(Photo by Phyllis Austin)

But the public that will drive into the park at the Matagamon Gate will not expect to encounter timber cutting, Lloyd said. "They will be confronted for the first time with a cutting operation [in the park]." Lloyd pointed out how much time and effort has been spent reducing the Tote Road vehicle pullouts and now there will be a new pullout and kiosk constructed.

Friends of Baxter Park, an advocacy group, expressed its worries to the Authority that were similar to those of Lloyd, who is on the board of the group. "We fear the impact of a harvest so close to the part of the Park that Gov. Baxter designated for preservation in its natural and wild state will be offensive to park users, may be easily misunderstood and will diminish its wilderness values," said president Charlie Jacobi.

The group asked for the Authority to consider the use of a "reasonable no-cut buffer zone" adjacent to the Tote Road. "We think such a buffer is good management, is sensitive to the competing goals and values of wilderness and forestry and would be asked of any corporate landowner in similar circumstances," Jacobi said.

In response to questions from the Authority, Bissell said the harvest would be a "standard operation in a sensitive area and is not something the Authority would have to vote on." Park counsel Paul Stern, agreed that no formal vote was needed. It was only because of the "sensitivity" of the matter that it was brought to the Authority’s attention, he explained.

If the project were inconsistent with the park’s Deeds of Trust, chairman Rowe said the trustees would "speak up." But none of the three members were interested in pursuing the matter further.

Relocation of Nesowadnehunk Campground

The relocation off the Tote Road and west of Nesowadnehunk Stream will occur over a three-year period, starting this season.
(Photo: BPA)
Supersize photo

On the relocation of Nesowadnehunk campground, ranger Drew explained that the old streambank has deteriorated from overuse, and the area is also unsafe because the fir forest there is vulnerable to windthrow and blowdown. The bridge across the stream to the campground has deteriorated and would cost $50,000 to $80,000 to replace.

The relocation off the Tote Road and west of Nesowadnehunk Stream will occur over a three-year period, starting this season. Lean-tos and tent sites will be relocated, and new administrative facilities will be built. New group areas will be established. A few tent sites will be kept in the old campground but farther back from the stream. The 12-foot-wide bridge will be replaced with a bridge half that size to provide foot access to those tent spots. The eroded streambanks will be restored to their natural state.

John Lloyd questioned whether the new camping areas – away from the water and near the road – will be a pleasant experience for campers. Chris Drew mentioned that he had lived for six years at Nesowadnehunk, in the shadow of Doubletop Mountain. Ninety percent of the campers who stay there do so because there’s no other space available in the park, he said.

Drew believes the relocation will change campers’ opinion of Nesowadnehunk for the better. The largest field has "super views" of the Cross Mountain Range and Doubletop, he pointed out, and the "draft [from valley winds] will keep bugs and dust down." Drew promised that the new location will become a popular choice with campers.

Caverly said that since the relocation is a phased operation, "if we find it’s running into unpopular reaction we could back up." Chairman Rowe added that it’s worth the experiment. "What we have is not good" at the present location, he said.

Snowmobiles in the Park

Drew reported that electronic sensors and success in getting snowmobilers to register has provided the park with the first reliable information on snowmobile use in the park. He said there’s an average of 1,000 sleds a week during the winter season – more than the staff expected.

With park neighbor Roxanne Quimby closing her land to snowmobilers next year, Drew warned there will be more riders using the park. He told the Authority to prepare for a new round of lobbying by snowmobilers to have the Tote Road groomed for speedier travel.

There was no mention at the meeting of Friends of Baxter Park’s concern over administrative use of snowmobiles and the impact on wilderness values. The group is working on a policy to present the Authority for consideration.

The park depends on its snowmobile fleet for winter patrol, access and logistical support for winter and summer supplies and materials. Helicopters have been used but are not easily available, according to Friends, and are expensive.

"We would like to offer our assistance in identifying alternatives to administrative snowmobile use, especially logistical support, and suggest ways to reduce such use to the minimum necessary to manage the park," said Jacobi. Friends would even consider raising private funds to help the park use helicopters for carrying supplies to backcountry facilities at Chimney and Russell ponds.

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