State investigates possible violation of timberland deal

Posted Jan. 13, 2010, at 9:55 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Three years after Katahdin Lake was added to Baxter State Park, state officials are looking into whether a logging firm violated an agreement to protect critical deer habitat on timberland it acquired from the state as part of the deal.

George Smith with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and Sen. David Trahan, D-Waldoboro, are raising questions about whether Gardner Land Co. harvested large numbers of trees in areas that state biologists had identified as providing valuable shelter to deer during Maine’s long and harsh winters.

But Tom Gardner dismissed the allegations, insisting that his logging crews left plenty of winter shelter for deer on the lots acquired as part of the Katahdin Lake deal.

“They need to find some place else to stir the state’s pot on deer winter habitat other than on Gardner land,” Gardner said.

In 2006, the Gardner family agreed to trade more than 6,000 acres surrounding Katahdin Lake — often described as one of the “jewels” of Maine’s North Woods — for roughly 7,250 acres of valuable state-owned land already being managed for timber. The Gardners were also given 14,000 acres of private land.

The deal had overwhelming support from conservationists, who pointed out that the late Gov. Percival Baxter had tried numerous times to incorporate the lake within the state park that he personally gifted to the state. But some sportsmen and snowmobilers opposed the deal because they stood to lose access to 4,000 of the 6,000 acres around Katahdin Lake.

As part of a last-minute agreement to win support from sportsmen and lawmakers for the land swap, Trahan included a requirement that Gardner Land Co. continue to manage the public land that it acquired for white-tailed deer. That management was supposed to be guided by an agreement negotiated between the Gardners and state biologists.

But the two sides clashed on key issues, and a formal agreement never materialized.

The current dust-up centers on whether subsequent logging by Gardner crews rendered the land unsuitable for deer, which seek out groves of mature trees that provide shelter from the deep snow and cold wind but also adequate food.

Trahan pointed to a December 2009 report by a biologist working for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that says many of the former deer wintering areas no longer offer adequate shelter.

“The facts are these were valuable lands with good habitat, and we had special protections” built into the agreement, said Trahan, himself a logger for more than 25 years. “I’m not accusing anybody of anything. But all of the information I am getting on these lands is very disturbing.”

Smith, whose organization opposed the Katahdin Lake deal, said he would like to see some sort of reparations if the agreement was violated. One option would be for the Gardners to set aside land elsewhere within their holdings for deer habitat.

But Tom Gardner said all of the former public lots were harvested to maintain deer habitat during winter.

“We’re very comfortable with what we’ve done up there,” he said.

David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said Wednesday the governor has asked DIF&W and Department of Conservation officials to report back on the status of the deer habitat within the former lots as well as whether any agreements were broken.

“We are taking it very seriously and we are looking into it,” Farmer said.

Rep. John Piotti, a Unity Democrat who helped broker the Katahdin Lake deal, said he is concerned about the reports but is awaiting more information from the Gardners and the state agencies.

“This was an important deal to the state of Maine, and it’s important that any commitments made to the state of Maine are lived up to,” said Piotti, who is now House majority leader.

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