A view of North and East Turner mountains from below the summit of The Lookout on the proposed national park land east of Baxter State Park (Photo by C. Parrish)
A view of North and East Turner mountains from below the summit of The Lookout on the proposed national park land east of Baxter State Park (Photo by C. Parrish)
We banked the coals in the woodstove at Big Spring Brook Cabin, strapped on our snowshoes and set off up an old logging road through 14 inches of fresh snow into the heart of a large tract of forestland that may or may not become Maine’s newest national park or monument. 

The snow squeaked under our feet. It was -2 degrees and as silent as a forest church, except for the whine of a snowmobile far off in the distance on the other side of the East Branch of the Penobscot River. 

As frigid as it was in the East Branch country, things were steaming up in Augusta and Washington D.C. over the proposal to designate this land as a national monument  — a move that can be taken by the president without need for congressional approval. President Obama just signed the paperwork on three new national monuments last week.

While I was off the grid in the proposed park lands, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis sent a letter to Maine’s congressional delegation in response to a list of concerns about federal ownership. Jarvis has been to the East Branch country twice, most recently in 2014 to tour the proposed park lands. In his letter, Jarvis said he found the land had the potential to draw new visitors for a range of recreational uses. He also cited a recent poll showing that 60 percent of Mainers supported creation of a new national park or monument and offered to work with local communities to address public access, private property rights and other concerns related to potential federal ownership.  It was polite and as tepid as cold tea.

 He invited the Maine delegation to participate in discussions, but he didn’t address any of their specific concerns.

I didn’t know any of this, of course. I had been in the backcountry for five days, skiing and snowshoeing off-trail through the proposed park lands that are wedged between Great Lake Matagamon to the north, the Baxter State Park boundary to the west, and the East Branch of the Penobscot River itself.

We turned onto the Lookout Trail, a well-bedded logging road that had been kept brushed out by the local snowmobile club until this year. Now, it was closed to snowmobiles. The proposed park property is owned by Elliotsville Plantation Inc., a non-profit. Some people refer to it as the Katahdin Woods and Waters Recreation Area, it’s adopted brand name, but most people refer to it as Roxanne’s land.

Sixteen years ago, Roxanne Quimby started buying up the East Branch country with some of the $350 million she earned from the sale of Burt’s Bees, her natural cosmetics company. Quimby’s initial goal was land preservation, which she defined as being incompatible with snowmobiles and hunting. She banned both.

Since then, Roxanne’s land on the east side of the East Branch has been reopened to snowmobiles and hunting with a promise that it will remain open, even if a national monument is declared. There are now about 30 miles of open snowmobile trails on Roxanne’s land. Most of the snowmobilers who come to this part of the Maine woods are from Massachusetts. They talk about Roxanne Quimby and the national park proposal endlessly. Say the name Quimby and hackles rise. Then they ride snowmobile trails on Roxanne’s land, courtesy of the landowner, without even knowing she owns them. 

There was no one around to get into heated arguments about the National Park Service in the backcountry of Roxanne’s land.

It’s been slow, according to Susan Adams, who is employed by Elliotsville Plantation Inc. to manage and do improvements on Roxanne’s land and make it available for visitors. Prior to last week, the weather had been too warm. About 30 people had come to stay in the backcountry huts so far this winter. Mark Adams, Susan’s husband and an expert trail groomer who also works for EPI, had perfectly groomed the trail from Matagamon gate for cross-country skiers. It was tracked for skinny skies, making it some of the easiest cross-country miles I had skied in my life. That was before the 14 inches of fresh, fluffy snow. Now, the tracks were buried.

Two degrees below zero was tricky weather for the sweaty business of snowshoeing the three miles uphill to The Lookout.

  I steamed like a racehorse when I pulled off over-mitts, mittens, then gloves to wrestle the frozen cap off a water bottle and take a slug. Within a minute, I crammed my fingers back in the mittens to keep them from freezing. At this temperature, the margin for error grows slim. I didn’t want to get sweaty and then get dangerously chilled, so I ?grew increasingly adept at unzipping one layer and zipping up another to keep my body temperature even.  

By that safety measure, ?I suppose we were in wilderness. Matagamon Camps was about 10 snowshoe miles away. There were no lights at night except that from the gas lamps at the cabin. There was no cell phone service. Siri was at rest. 

By another measure, the way EPI land was currently being managed didn’t fit the legal definition of a Federal Wilderness Area under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Federally designated Wilderness, with a capital W, is a political compromise that prohibits roads, chain saws and bicycles. Logging is prohibited. It has some strange political loopholes that allow for cattle grazing and pack animals, but it doesn’t allow for ski trail grooming and any permanent structures like backcountry huts. Technically, a visitor can get fined for carrying a moose antler out of a Federal Wilderness Area but it’s okay to muddy up a mountain trout stream with a herd of pack horses, leaving one to wonder about the ecological ethics involved. 

Still, mostly, Federal Wilderness Areas are remote and untrammelled country where man is a visitor and not a resident and land use management is left up to Mother Nature.

 


Nearing the crest of The Lookout mountain, but still beneath the summit, the temperature dropped and the timber grew bigger. The birch grove in the lee of the summit looked different than lowland white birch. At a guess, without leaves, it appeared to be heart-leaf birch, a mountain tree. 

Two gray jays were making a ruckus down slope in the poplars and a Downy Woodpecker nicked away for insects on a poplar trunk. I looked close for Boreal Chickadees of the northern forest when the little birds twittered nearby, but they were all backyard cousins — the Black-Capped chickadee. 

This piece of land had been used hard. Except near the streams, the hearty trees were gone and the landscape dominated by skinny poplar. Technically, the land hadn’t been clearcut, but it had been shaved right up to a whisker of the definition, except in the areas near the streams where some larger trees remained. Even there, an area that should have more trees to protect clear water and shade the stream had been shaved. It was enough to make an ethical forester shudder.

Eventually, the forest would grow older. Trees would age and die, falling to create openings where young trees would sprout up. That would not be good grouse hunting habitat. It would make it an older, messier, more complex forest ecosystem. Recreationists might not think it pretty, either. 

Of course, the poplar may serve other ecological purposes in the larger landscape that extends past Roxanne’s land. And the tracks of ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare, and the occasional lynx and coyote were everywhere. This young forest was right for them. 

Still, growing a wild forest requires centuries of patience. It’s not just a bunch of any old trees left over after logging has stopped. It would be a couple of centuries for this forest to recover complexity.

The questions about how we value Maine forest land and in what ways we value it are like a stack of nesting wooden dolls; there is another question beneath the first question, and another below that. Strip away the partisan politics, the labels of ‘elitist preservationist’ and ‘redneck snowmobiler’ and, most of all, the notion that the people who use these lands all live next door, and one of the questions I?uncovered was this:?What does the land have to say for itself? This particular stretch of poplar forest looked exhausted. It seemed too tired to speak.

I crested the summit to a view of the Grand Basin in Baxter State Park. Katahdin was shrouded in clouds with gleams of light illuminating a shard of the Knife Edge and putting a spotlight on Chimney Pond. The pond itself wasn’t visible behind the Turner Mountains, but the bowl of the cirque was and it glowed in the sunshine. The mountains were playing with the clouds and the light. 

“Now, that is a world-class view,” I?said to my cribbage competitor. Park worthy? That would depend on how accessible it was to the public at large.

To the north of Katahdin, Russell Pond sat tucked in the Grand Basin, surrounded by mountains. From there, the forest of the Wassataquoik river valley swept southeast, bordered by The Lookout on one side and the steep slopes of North Turner and East Turner mountains on the other. The Wassataquoik River flowed down the valley to meet the East Branch of the Penobscot in the dense timber as the land rolled out of the mountains.

 Even from this distance, the forest was speaking, and for the first time on the trip, I?was truly excited. I turned to my cribbage competitor.

“Jeez, look at the Wassataquoik drainage. It’s all in one piece. It’s intact, flowing right out of Baxter. How often do you see that in Maine? That, right there, is wilderness land.” 

It turned out that almost 2,600 acres of land almost directly across from The Lookout is not Roxanne’s land at all. It is Maine Public Land located right up against the Baxter State Park eastern boundary. It belongs to you and me. It’s called the East Turner Mountain public lot.

About the same time I was admiring the view of the Wassataquoik, the governor was making plans to harvest timber there. In response to the National Park Service letter, and citing concern about a federal takeover of state land,  the governor ordered a new bridge built on an existing state right-of-way on Roxanne’s land so he could  get access to log the East Turner Mountain public lot.

 The public lot was acquired by the Maine Bureau of Public Lands in 2006. It has not been seriously harvested for approximately a hundred years, perhaps more. It also wasn’t calculated as part of the total timber on Maine Public Lands since it was stranded on one flank by the “forever wild” status of Baxter State Park and on the other by the lack of a bridge.

Theoretically, Maine Public Lands staff could cut up to 50 percent of the East Turner Mountain public lot.

In a public statement, Roxanne Quimby said she had no quarrel with the state’s right-of-way to the lot.

But what was on it? Was my view from The Lookout accurate?

I found the answer in the Maine Public Lands 2014 Management Plan for the public lot. It is one of the best definitions of wilderness, with a capital W, that I?have ever seen:

The northern half of the parcel and steep upper slopes of East Turner Mountain support mature softwood forest, while the southern half is characterized by mature northern hardwoods (including sugar maple exceeding 150 years old). With the exception of the eastern lobe of the parcel, the forest stands have relatively little history of human disturbance, and collectively they form an outstanding example of a Spruce – Northern Hardwood Forest Ecosystem. This intact forest ecosystem extends well beyond this parcel and covers the majority of the Turner Mountain formation and the area surrounding Katahdin Lake into Baxter State Park. It is remarkable for its near pristine condition and because it is one of the largest undisturbed examples of its type known from the state.