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The Portland Phoenix
February 13 - 20, 2003

[Features]

Bigelow or bust

A proposed amendment to landmark legislation invokes the Ghost of Development Past (and Future)

By Jess Kilby

FOE OF FRIENDS: Larry Warren eyes a small chunk of the Bigelow Preserve.
Ellicottville, New York, is known in skiing circles as the “Aspen of the East,” a resort town drawing hordes of skiers each winter. This nifty tourism-whore nickname, however, almost belonged to a mountain range in Maine: the pristine Bigelow Mountains, in the northwest of the state. Developers were hot for Bigelow back in the 1960s and ’70s; Flagstaff Corporation, from Massachusetts (where else?), wanted to turn it into one of the world’s largest ski resorts.

But conservationists were having none of that. They formed the Friends of Bigelow, and using the state’s citizen-initiative process, put a question on the 1976 ballot asking for the state to buy and preserve the area. Remarkably, the initiative passed.

“On a glorious sunny day, the voters saved the mountain, creating a large park by referendum for the first time in the United States,” wrote Friends of Bigelow founder and Phoenix contributor Lance Tapley, on the 25th anniversary of the vote (see “How to save a mountain?” June 8, 2001). “Now the nearly 40,000-acre preserve is a treasured gem of our parks and public lands’ system.”

But it’s still prime real estate. And a proposal to cut a 12-mile, machine-groomed, cross-country ski trail through the preserve (and build a 40-person lodge just outside the park) has the old Friends up in arms over suggested changes to the Bigelow Preserve Act — changes that some fear could be the first step down an inevitable slippery slope. Some landowners in the area even threaten that, if the state abandons Bigelow Preserve to increased development, they might follow suit.

In the beginning

Here’s the deal: The Western Mountains Foundation, a nonprofit run by former Sugarloaf USA president Larry Warren, is proposing to create a 180-mile trail from the New Hampshire border to Moosehead Lake. The trail would be punctuated by a series of 12 lodges, each accommodating up to 40 people, and would be open year-round to the people-powered masses (i.e., no snowmobiles or ATVs). There would be a fee to use both the trail and the huts: $45 per night for lodging plus two meals and $8 to $10 for use of the trail.

This project is hardly news (see “Hut Pursuit,” December 13, 2002, by Tom O’Donnell); Warren has been talking about it publicly for at least a year now. And opposition — specifically to the Bigelow portion of the trail — has existed from the beginning. But that opposition has grown especially loud in the past several weeks, as word has circulated about a new bill that would change the Preserve Act.

The bill, sponsored by state Representative Monica McGlocklin (D-Embden) on behalf of WMF, seeks to clarify a question that the original Bigelow Preserve Act fails to answer — is machine grooming of ski trails allowed within the preserve? The Act states that “no buildings, ski lifts, power transmission facilities, or other structures shall be built in the Preserve, except for open trail shelters, essential service facilities, temporary structures used in timber harvesting, small signs, and other small structures that are in keeping with the undeveloped character of the Preserve.” Not a word in the three-paragraph act on trail grooming.

When officials at the state Bureau of Parks and Lands, which manages the preserve, realized that the original legislation was silent on the grooming question, they kicked Warren’s proposal back and said they couldn’t review the project until the law was clarified. The actual genesis of the McGlocklin bill, however, comes with two markedly different creation myths.

“The Attorney General’s office has suggested to the Bureau of Parks and Lands that for them to be on the safe side — safe, that is, in terms of protecting themselves from any threatened legal actions that may result if they authorize grooming within the preserve — that we should obtain legislative authorization for grooming,” Warren says.

But Ralph Knowles, director of planning and land acquisition for the BPL, says things didn’t exactly go down like that.

“[Saying Warren requested legislation at our behest] is probably a little bit strong,” he says. “What we told Larry was that, listen, if you want to pursue this, the law is going to have to change. So you’re going to have to get some folks to sponsor legislation. We’re not going to put it forward . . . We’ve got concerns about — and others have concerns about — the legislation being introduced, in that once you open that Pandora’s box, it’s hard to tell what might happen.”

If you build it

In a nutshell, opponents of Warren’s plan will provide profit for the WMF while exposing Maine’s southernmost swath of undeveloped wilderness to increased traffic. They also worry that McGlocklin’s bill could set a precedent for further amending the Bigelow Preserve Act — or for outright disregard of the document.

“We believe that if machines come in to groom, other machines will follow,” says Friends of Bigelow member Gary Lawless. “Once you have that nice trail through the preserve, what is to keep other snowmobiles, ATVs, ORVs, motorcycles, mountain bikes, etc. from tearing through there? Will Larry Warren police it?

“We are not against a cross-country ski trail,” Lawless explains, “but we believe that such a trail should be planned by the preserve manager together with MATC [Maine Appalachian Trail Club] and ATC [Appalachian Trail Conference] advisors, not by a developer who wants to make money off the trail.”

Rick Mason, who owns more than 80 acres of land bordering the preserve, and whose family has ties to the area dating back to the Revolutionary War, offers the mismanagement of public property by the Maine Island Trail Association as an example of what could happen to Bigelow.

“Before they came along, anyone with the fortitude and experience who wanted to kayak around our shores and camp on secluded islands could do so,” he says. “Well, the MITA did not have a management plan [for the trail system it created] and for over 10 years abused the islands they were using. Now guess what? Their [new] management plan is such that it only further benefits their group, even on 39 publicly owned islands. It is such that if you are not in their group and are camping on said island and they show up you must leave, even on a publicly owned island. So, in retrospect, they ruined the islands that belong to us all and then managed us off them to boot.”

Friends of Bigelow chair Dick Fecteau notes that even as the WMF plan stands now, without any future expansion, Warren’s plan to ferry supplies to the cabin via the groomed trail threatens overuse of the area.

“If you’ve got 40 people staying over at Flagstaff Lake and the only way to get there on the groomer is to go through the preserve, we think that groomer is going to have to make several trips a day just to bring enough clean laundry and food and be able to haul trash out,” he says. “They’re just going to have to use the preserve as a supply corridor, and we feel that that’s outrageous. That’s not what it was meant for.”

Fecteau says the Friends have tried to work with Warren regarding the size of the hut (a smaller structure, Fecteau says, would significantly reduce the burden of keeping it stocked and maintained) and the location of the trail, which cuts through a particularly untouched part of the preserve and also crosses the Appalachian Trail. But Fecteau says Warren has been unresponsive to these attempts at compromise.

He just wants to do it his way,” he says, “and borrow millions of dollars and do a real-estate development. Essentially it’s a resort.”

Gray matter

For his part, Warren freely admits that more changes to the Bigelow Preserve Act may follow the one he’s proposing.

“There’s nothing that’s immune from any potential changes in the law,” he says. “Law is kind of a fluid situation, and if there are other things that come up that need clarification as specified or requested by the Attorney General’s office, that may be.”

Regarding the size of the huts (all 12 will be the same size), Warren says consultation with groups in Colorado and New Hampshire that run similar trail systems indicated that the 40-person huts — the smallest of several sizes that exist in the New Hampshire complement — would offer the best “economy of scale” for WMF’s project. And Warren believes the cabins are in keeping with the character of the area.

“There’s been some question as to whether it’s appropriate to have huts outside the Bigelow Preserve located in close proximity to the preserve boundary,” he says, “and when we initiated this project, one of the things we took a close look at is, ‘What are the appropriate uses around the Bigelow Preserve?’ Several years ago, the old Scott paper company owned most of the land on the eastern boundary of the preserve, and that ended up for the most part being clearcut. Our feelings were that it isn’t always necessary to have things black or white — to have it managed as either a wilderness preserve, and the other option be a clearcut.

“It’s not like we’re managing these huts like a strip mall or a gas station,” he adds. “It’s pretty light on the land, and all of the amenities and the facilities are pretty self-sustaining.”

Warren says any profits generated by the project will be funneled back into trail maintenance, as well as a scholarship program he hopes to institute for the purpose of bringing Maine students to the lodges for week-long educational visits. The issue of profiting off public lands may never be an issue, however; detractors like Fecteau believe the project — like its New Hampshire counterpart, which operates at an annual deficit of $800,000 — is likely to be a money pit.

“Options for cross-country skiing, and skiing from destination to destination isn’t a bad idea,” Fecteau says. “But the way it’s being proposed, with a multi-million dollar investment that will have to be paid back, is going to start this project out behind the financial eightball. And I feel, and many of the Friends of Bigelow feel, it’s doomed to financial failure, building these things that big.”

This preserve thing

There are several other hurdles that will have to be overcome before the WMP project becomes a reality — a crucial loan from the USDA, which has yet to be secured; a question about landowner CMP’s right to lease the Flagstaff hut location to WMF, which is currently being debated before the PUC (public comments are due by February 14); approval for that hut, if the PUC gives the green light, from the Land Use Regulatory Commission; and approval for the Bigelow section of the trail from the BPL, pending environmental assessments and public comment. Warren is optimistic that things will go his way. He has no backup plan for rerouting the Bigelow section of the proposed 180-mile trail if McGlocklin’s bill should fail.

“There will be a trail” through the preserve, he says. “It’s just whether it’ll be groomed or not.”

But Warren will obviously be gunning for the passage of the Bigelow amendment; an ungroomed trail is hardly the doormat he wants to lay for his $425,000 chalet. And without permission to traverse the preserve via grooming machine, how will he stock and clean the cabin?

With the first draft of the bill yet to be finished, it’s hard to tell which way the Legislature will blow on this one. But the potential impact of their decision should not be underestimated by legislators.

“Myself, and possibly other landowners, we’re looking to see what happens,” Mason says. “Because it’s going to give us an indication — those who have been protecting the preserve — whether the state wants it developed. So there is the threat that we could develop our land if this goes through because it’s the message that the state is going to be sending us.”

Unfortunately, the sponsoring legislator herself — while no doubt trying to do right by Warren, her constituent — seems unlikely to offer any meaningful leadership to this debate.

“The thing is, that they keep failing to mention — they keep trying to make it sound like he’s trying to take over this preserve thing,” McGlocklin says of the Friends. “The preserve is one small part of his whole [project]. The trail is going to be 180 miles long, from Newry to Rockwood, and the preserve is going to be, like, a couple miles through there. But these people seem to think it’s, like, their own domain or something. They tend to be sort of elitist.”

“And by the way, he’s not a developer,” she adds. “I don’t know where they get this stuff.”

Representative Kevin Glynn (R-South Portland) notes that there’s a huge difference between an amendment that looks to alter the original intent of a law, versus one that seeks to address a technical detail. With major changes, he says, the Legislature would be far more likely to seek public comment or send the amendment out to referendum vote.

The McGlocklin bill floats that fine line between, in legal parlance, being a “major substantive” or “routine technicalrecommendation. Opponents claim it’s the former; supporters, the latter. Which makes the public-comment period — which is likely several weeks to a month out for this bill — crucial for interested parties. It’s here, Glynn says, that lawmakers will attempt to assess the “original intent” of the initiators.

We can clear that up right now: “Our intention back in the 1970s was to have this be a part of the heritage of Maine that will be kept as-is,” says Bigelow founder Tapley. “That’s what we talked about, as-is . . . The Bigelow Preserve was not set up for economics — it was not set up for commercialization. It was set up to be a preserve. We defeated, we thought, a ski resort.

“You shouldn’t change this precious language,” he adds, “because it was approved not by the Legislature, but by the people of the state in a referendum. And if you want to change the language you have to go out to another referendum.”

Jess Kilby can be reached at jkilby@phx.com.

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