Seboomook Management Plan Criticized for Favoring Motorized Recreation

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 12/15/05

The Seboomook public reserved unit is one of the last places in Maine with a relatively wild area large enough to support multi-day water and woods-based adventure tourism.
(Little Spencer Mt from Seboomook, Photo: J. Riders)

Alexandra Conover, one of Maine’s best-known wilderness guides, is blowing the whistle on the state’s planning politics over management of the new Seboomook lands. The Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL), she contends, is in the clutches of the motorized access lobby. At issue is the South Seboomook Road that was rebuilt with Land for Maine’s Future money by a member of the Seboomook advisory committee who benefited financially from the work. The reconstruction, asserts Conover, shut out options for significant remote recreation in the Seboomook Lake area.

Figures from BPL show that the draft plan for Seboomook is strongly pro-motorized access, and spokesman Ralph Knoll confirmed that Rick Sylvester improved the South Seboomook Road that runs from his campground business to Pittston Farm along the south shore of Seboomook Lake. Sylvester graded the road on his own for his customers without BPL’s knowledge, according to Knoll. After the Land Use Regulation Commission determined that no major violations had occurred and Sylvester didn’t need a permit, the bureau then enlisted Sylvester to carry out further improvements. Knoll said BPL did not pay Sylvester.

BPL’s Seboomook public reserved unit, north of Greenville, is one of the last places in Maine with a relatively wild area large enough to support multi-day water and woods-based adventure tourism, said Conover, co-owner of North Woods Ways. She was hoping that BPL would consider allowing the South Seboomook Road, which had deteriorated badly, to continue to revert back to nature, thus creating the opportunity for long distance, non-motorized trips.

The newly formed Maine Wilderness Guides Organization is also concerned about the state’s action regarding the South Seboomook Road. "By improving and ungating roads, the state is predetermining the user group and type of North Woods experience," commented Greg Shute, the co-president of the group and also a member of the Seboomook advisory committee. BPL is managing too much for short-term recreation where people stay close to their vehicles and is giving short-shrift to human-powered recreation away from roads and motors, Shute said.

The Seboomook debate is tied to the first management plan ever for the new 51,450-acre unit that’s part of the 329,000-acre West Branch conservation project in the Penobscot River watershed. A draft proposal is as far as BPL has gotten in the planning process. The public will be given a chance to weigh in on the staff recommendations this winter. The final plan, expected to be finished by spring, will respond to the non-motorized access community, Knoll promises. "We are trying to walk the line, create a balance" between motorized and non-motorized interests, he said.

However, Conover doesn’t buy Knoll’s pledge of "balance." The draft plan proposes to allocate only 5,000 acres for remote recreation and 27,000 acres for multiple use (motorized access) and timber management. (Eleven thousand acres are allocated to wildlife protection and 9,000 acres to ecological reserves – most of that acreage on Big Spencer Mountain.)

Alexandra and Garrett Conover guide for North Woods Ways.

Conover pointed out that BPL has repeatedly declined to designate even one acre of its expanding land base as wilderness. In addition, BPL has kept open almost all roads and built miles of new roads to harvest timber off its lands. "Their whole attitude is geared toward serving the motoring public," Conover said, noting that the agency has fulltime employees advocating for snowmobile and ATV recreation and no voice for non-motorized recreation.

Conover questions the use of LMFP money for roads – in this case "wasted" on access, Conover claims. "LMFP is not Roads for Maine’s Future," she said. The public has enthusiastically supported multi-million dollar bond issues to support buying conservation land, and Conover believes they should know that the program is using those taxpayers’ money to build roads and other facilities as well.

Tim Glidden, executive director of LMFP, responded that the expenditures of funds for "minor capital improvements" to enhance access (via roads and trails) is completely in keeping with its legal mandate. The law allows the spending of up to five percent of the appraised value of the acquired property on access projects. In making access grants, the board doesn’t look further than the basic purpose of the request, Glidden said. In the least, said Conover, the board should come up with specific criteria that must be met before its funds are given to BPL or any other agency for capital investments, no matter how small.

Conover argues that the $22,000 -- $17,000 for the South Seboomook Road and $5,000 for the Cut-off Road – of LMF money did not actually "improve" access. People were already able to reach their destinations via the Golden Road, the Seboomook Dam Road and the 20-Mile Road, she said. Ralph Knoll confirmed that the South Seboomook and Cut-off roads are not "critical" for access. There were reasons, such as tradition and convenience, for keeping them in use, he said, noting that the South Seboomook Road has been used by the public for over 100 years.

Motorized access supporters have written and called BPL to urge the agency to keep existing access open, citing the economic importance to businesses in the area, as well as the needs of camp owners and a variety of different users. Camp owner Ralph Cleale of Limington urged the bureau to keep the South Seboomook Road and others in the area passable to pickups and secondary woods roads to Seven-Mile Hill, the Gulliver Brook Road and the St. John ponds road left open for hunting and fishing. "It’s too far to hike in or to drag a deer out" of those places if there’s not a nearby road, he said.

However, roads has not been a big issue in general with motorized users because they haven’t felt threatened during the Seboomook discussion. In response to Conover’s concerns, Knoll revealed that BPL has never contemplated closing major roads on the lands it acquires. (The lands are usually crisscrossed with logging roads.) The bureau is self-funding by harvesting wood on the lands and must maintain road access to the woods. "We don’t do a management plan based on cutting revenues, but at the end of the day, that’s how we stay in business," he added.

Conover responded that Knoll’s statement "has huge implications" for its overall management and is just more evidence of how biased the agency is toward motorized travel.

The status quo

BPL has kept open almost all roads and built miles of new roads to harvest timber off its lands. "Their whole attitude is geared toward serving the motoring public," Conover said, noting that the agency has fulltime employees advocating for snowmobile and ATV recreation and no voice for non-motorized recreation.

The Seboomook unit is the third area BPL has begun work to design or revamp management plans since its controversial Integrated Resource Policy (IRP) was adopted in December 2000 – an intense effort that, for the most part, embraced motorized recreation.

The newly constituted Downeast Lakes unit (which includes the Donnell Pond, Rocky Lake and Cutler Coast units, the Great Heath and several public lots) was undertaken two years ago and still hasn’t been finished because of the fight between motorized and non-motorized interests. The conflict is centered on the Donnell Pond/Tunk Lake/Spring River Lake area – the most heavily used part of the BPL lands in Hancock and Washington counties.

Recently, BPL has had its first public meeting on the Flagstaff unit, which includes the Bigelow Mountain ecological reserve. Friends of Bigelow has proposed enlarging the ecological reserve and banning motorized activity. So far, the planning process has been discouraging, said Dick Fecteau, a Bigelow activist. "The BPL pre-plan and advisory committee meeting for Bigelow and the Flagstaff region seem to be biased towards the status quo," he said. "The planning process itself seems to lack planning and any real effort to include public input . . . BPL does not want to lose any potential timber income acreage."

The Seboomook unit was acquired in two stages. The first acquisition, in April 2000, included Big Spencer Mountain, Mud Cove Bog and a section of Moosehead Lake’s northeast shoreline (that shoreline is not in the Seboomook unit and the cost is not included in the figure). The second acquisition, in December, 2003, included lands around Seboomook Lake; Canada Falls and the St. John Ponds west of the lake; and Baker Lake to the north. LMF allocated $1 million toward the acquisition.

The Seboomook unit includes 58 miles of shoreline. An 810-acre strip runs 24 miles along the shoreline of Canada Falls Lake and its outlet, the South Branch of the Penobscot River. Another parcel of 3,900 acres surrounds a series of small ponds at the top of the St. John River watershed and has 11 miles of shoreline. A third tract around Baker Lake includes 1,625 acres and 13 miles of shoreline. The Big Spencer Mountain parcel contains 4,242 acres. As part of the purchase agreement, Big Spencer Mountain and the St. John ponds were designated as ecological reserves. Knoll said harvesting is prohibited in eco-reserves (with exceptions for salvage from fires and insect damage) and roads are put to bed.

There are two in-holdings in the Seboomook unit – Sylvester’s Seboomook Campground on the southeast end of the lake and Pittston Farm, that once was the hub of Great Northern Paper’s logging operations in the West Branch district, on the northwest end.

There are approximately 30 miles of public access roads in the unit, all on the Seboomook Lake parcel.The state owns the South Seboomook Road from the junction with the 20-Mile Road to Seboomook Dam; the Roll Dam Road; and the road from Seboomook Dam to the Golden Road. Major users include fishermen, boaters, campers and hunters. In winter, the South Seboomook Road is a heavily used snowmobile artery.

In the dark

An advisory group is appointed to help BPL develop each unit management plan or to revise it periodically. Those helping with the Seboomook plan, in addition to Conover, Sylvester and Shute are: Paul Fichtner of Penobscot Lake Lodge, Jennifer Mills of Pittston Farm, Sarah Medina of North Maine Woods/Seven Islands Land Co., Paul Napolitano of Ragged Lake Riders (a snowmobile club), consultant Sandy Neily of Greenville, Kevin Bernier of Great Lakes Hydro America, Greenville guide Dan Legere, Diano Circo of the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) and John Banks of the Penobscot Indian tribe.

A month before BPL appointed the committee, a scoping session was held in Greenville on August 31, 2004, to take public comment on issues important to them. Western Lands regional manager Peter Smith mentioned the deteriorated access roads and said they would be addressed in the management plan, according to minutes of the meeting.

The final plan, expected to be finished by spring, will respond to the non-motorized access community, Knoll promises.
Photo: North Woods Ways

Three weeks later, on October 12, BPL held a focus meeting to specifically discuss roads and access issues. Smith stated that the bureau would be developing a road maintenance plan to get the South Seboomook and Roll Dam roads in "overall good condition by next summer. The overall plan," he said, "is to bring the major roads within the unit up to the standards applied to roads in other state reserved lands so that annual maintenance costs will be reasonable."

Sylvester began working on the road around this time. BPL did not pay him to do any work, said Knoll. The advisory committee was not informed by BPL that the South Seboomook Road work had already been started by Sylvester or about their decision to let him complete the repairs.

Conover doesn’t think the bureau was "sneaking around" but that it was remiss in not following appropriate process and ignoring its advisory committee. "The state should not be actively making and implementing management decisions at the same time it’s crafting a draft preliminary plan," she stated.

In February, 2005, the bureau submitted a $63,000 access improvement application for the West Branch to the LMF board. The proposal referred to "some stop gap work" that BPL had already done on the South Seboomook Road in 2004, "with the bureau supplying materials and a user donating machine time." Work would be done on existing roads around Seboomook Lake and the West Branch with the goal of correcting "environmental problems, prevent future degradation of the road system and provide improved public access," the application said. "Many of these roads are impassable in the spring which is when a large amount of use occurs (fishing and whitewater boating)."

The Roll Dam Road and the Cut-off Road were both difficult to negotiate in summer without a four-wheel drive vehicle, the application said. The Roll Dam Road was identified as the main access to the West Branch below Seboomook Dam and was described as being in such poor condition that maximum speeds were 15-20 miles per hour and passage required a vehicle with a good clearance. The Cut-off Road was in poor condition but wasn’t essential for access, the document said, adding it does reduce travel distances by 5.5 miles.

However, since there are well-traveled roads that already provide access to the Seboomook and Canada Falls lakes, there is no need for repairing deteriorated roads to duplicate access, Conover said. North Woods Ways has a two-wheel drive mini-van to transport its clients, and she said there have been no problems using it to reach their destinations in the Seboomook area. Fewer roads would focus access points, simplify management and create fewer problems, she said.

LFMB approved the funding request. In addition to the $22,000 for the South Seboomook and Cut-off roads, the application requested and received $31,000 for the Roll Dam Road; $6,000 for the Seboomook Campground Road to the dam; $4,000 for the Seboomook Dam Roads. Almost all the money was spent last summer and fall, most of it on the South Seboomook Road. Ralph Knoll said work on the Cut-off Road has not yet been done. That work was put out to bid, and Sylvester did not win the contract.

A five-year maintenance contract was put out for bid recently, with money to pay contractors to come from timber stumpage sales. BPL pulled the contract back after bids were too low.

Managing for Everyone and No One

Ralph Knoll expressed surprise that Conover waited until the summer to bring up the roads matter. But the advisory committee’s first formal meeting was not until June 6, and it was around then that members were first asked to comment for the draft plan. Conover sent a letter on July 27 with her thoughts. She proposed that the bureau put the South Seboomook and Cut-off roads to bed, unaware that the South Seboomook repairs had been done already.

Referring to the Seboomook lands as "rare and unique," she said "the quickest way to change the atmosphere and character of this place is to upgrade roads and develop campgrounds and motorboat access ramps, for this only attracts the least responsible type of user and eliminates the eco-tourists who are generally responsible, low impact and prefer quiet undeveloped camping areas."

"The day or weekend high impact user already has the major of Maine’s public reserved lands and state parks to use," Conover wrote. "So why are we, the state of Maine, even contemplating improving access and roads when we know from experience that it will lead to more public pressure for facilities and ultimately create more management problems? All these ‘improvements’ cost money and in the long run degrade the Seboomook lands to a level of use that can be found almost anywhere."

Conover received no response from the bureau, but her letter was included in the committee’s informational packet for the September 27 meeting. Conover did not attend the session because she was away guiding. The issue was not brought up for discussion by BPL or the committee attendees at that session.

On Sept. 29, Sandy Neily wrote a memo to BPL and to the Land Use Regulation Commission supporting closure of the South Seboomook Road and reserving it for foot traffic. Putting the road to bed "would allow the lake to offer a more remote, wild feeling experience," she said. "I realize this is a critical issue for the Sylvesters. In a way Rick, at the last meeting, got me thinking about this when he mentioned the importance of trail systems near the campground and his desire to see more of them. If the campground abuts a high quality remote experience of adjacent trails and Rick marketed his campground as this very rare ‘inholding’ in the middle of protected lands, I think his business would thrive and grow," Neily said. "He is right on the edge of being sought after by a whole new group of outdoor users, and this opportunity could move him into this user group."

When Conover returned from guiding, she called BPL’s Kathy Eickenberg, manager of the Seboomook unit plan, to see what was going on with the South Seboomook Road. Eickenberg delivered the news that the road had already been repaired.

Conover wrote BPL asking the staff to draft a management plan that would envision what Seboomook could be in 50 years if it were protected and managed for eco-tourism rather than motor accessible and roadside theme park.
Photo: Nicatou Outfitters

NRCM’s Diano Circo was as unaware as Conover that the road work had occurred the previous fall. There was only one committee meeting where roads were brought up, and there was only general reference to traditional public access and camping sites, he said. "There was no in-depth discussion about reconstructing [the South Seboomook Road]." Once Circo became aware of Conover’s concerns, he felt BPL should have been upfront about the issue. NRCM had not been focused on numerous roads in the Seboomook Lake area, he said, because Wagner Forest Management had cut the area so hard before the land was sold to the state.

Assuming the road issue was a dead one – at least until it needs repairing again – Conover addressed the big picture. She wrote BPL again on Nov. 4 asking the staff to draft a management plan that would envision what Seboomook could be in 50 years if it were protected and managed for eco-tourism rather than motor accessible and roadside theme park. "If Seboomook goes the way of most of the rest of Maine state parks and public lands we will continue to manage for everyone and therefore no one," she said. "Use of remoter parcels, such as this one, will continue to fall off. To increase use of an area, we have to have something clearly defined to the market of users. Is this [going to be] a remote fly-fishing paradise or an ATV theme park?"

Conover mentioned her 30 years bringing people to canoe and snowshoe in the Maine woods, and said, "I cannot fail to notice that our guests have sought out Maine as a destination precisely because of its remote woodlands and waterways, not because of ease of access to these places." A wilderness guide’s biggest challenge now, she said, is to find clients an unroaded place that is still wild enough to feel lost in. "If we forfeit the chance to respond to the burgeoning eco-tourism market and run this unit like all other, Seboomook’s natural resources and the state’s resources will be commensurately impoverished," Conover said.

The bureau’s draft recommendations "don’t go as far as Alexandra would like," Knoll said, but taking politics and practicalities into account, he defends them as responsive to all user groups. The protective recommendations for non-motorized access are centered around the shoreline of Canada Falls, the St. John ponds and Baker Lake. On Big Spencer Mountain, the bureau is proposing to remove a snowmobile trail to the old warden’s cabin and relocate it to another high-elevation peak and dismantle the structure. Over the next two years, BPL will weigh the possibility of closing off some interior roads south of the South Seboomook Road and creating a much larger remote recreation area, he said, but there are no promises.

One tenth of six percent

There are 1,285 million acres of public conservation and recreation land in Maine, or six percent of the state’s total acreage, according to the 2003 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan. As of 2002 there were only 77,181 acres of ecological reserves on public reserved lands. Even if the almost 50,000 acres of federally designated wilderness in the Caribou-Speckled mountain is counted, only one-tenth of the six percent of public conservation and recreation land is held "in anything resembling wilderness status," said Friends of Bigelow board member Bob Weingarten in his testimony at BPL’s Flagstaff scoping session last March. "This is an area of neglect in land conservation planning in our state . . .."

BPL said it doesn’t have figures on what percentage of its lands are opened to motorized versus non-motorized access but that work is being done currently. The bureau also doesn’t have figures on how many miles of roads are on its lands, how many miles of roads the state has built since acquiring the properties or how many miles have been put to bed.

LMF’s Tim Glidden said that out of $50 million of land conservation bond issues over the years, probably less than $100,000 has been spent on public access projects. "The only thing the board looks for is" whether the proposal improves access," he said. "There are not a whole bunch of criteria."

As a result of Conover’s questioning the bureau’s planning process, Ralph Knoll leaves open the possibility that BPL will have a discussion about keeping open major roads on its lands. "Until Alexandra put forward her perspective, no one has questioned this," he said, then agreeing that environmentalists have raised the issue time after time during management and policy debates.

No matter how it may seem, BPL is trying to create opportunities for wilderness recreation, he said. "All of us, whether it’s me, the planners or field staff, are responsible to do what is best for the resource . . . and create recreation opportunities where it makes the most sense. We may not have a non-motorized division," Knoll said, "but we’re all, as employees and as part of our mandate and objectives, supposed to look at all the resources."

Steve Spencer, he reported, has been reassigned from BPL’s recreation planner to Conservation Department commissioner Pat McGowan’s office as the new Backcountry Project Director. Spencer’s initial focus is to identify existing backcountry/long distance human powered recreational opportunities in Maine. The information will be valuable for BPL’s planning efforts, Knoll said.

Reference: Seboomook Lake, ME Quadrangle maps.

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