Camp owners sacrificial lambs to conservation

Posted March 18, 2010, at 7:18 p.m.

A group of long-term camp owners fear they are being driven out of Grand Lake Stream as the result of an effort to save the wilderness for future generations.

A sporting oasis in central Washington County, Grand Lake Stream is home to just 125 year-round residents, but the epicenter of nine seasonal sporting lodges. An 86 percent drop in school-age children in the past 11 years combined with an aging (and diminishing) population has made the town more economically dependent than ever on its seasonal activity.

Here, as elsewhere, shoreline camps on leased lots survived generations as timberlands were seldom transferred. These days, when Maine forestlands quickly change hands, sometimes that change can be seen as beneficial.

That happened last April when the Downeast Lakes Land Trust signed an option agreement with Lyme Timber of Hanover, N.H., the new owner of 22,000 acres involving three local lakes. The result, in seven years, will be the “West Grand Lake Community Forest” designed, according to the land trust’s Web site, “to protect the economy of the Grand Lake Stream community in central Washington County.” Gov. John Baldacci, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree are all honorary co-chairpersons of the project committee.

What 33 camp owners didn’t know was that their contribution to that economy, in fact their very presence, was in jeopardy. Lyme Timber had folded the sale of their historic lease lots into its financial blueprint.

That there are only 33 affected leases on a 22,000-acre tract involving three lakes attests to humanity’s scarce footprint there. They are the region’s most remote camps: none with improved access, some without roads, some on islands, most with no septic, all without utilities. In old lease lot language, they were known as “primitive camp sites.”

Four of the area’s oldest guide sites are among this group, one of them hosting for decades famed World War II aviator, Medal of Honor recipient and sport fisherman James “Jimmy” Doolittle. Seven miles by water from town, it and others like it remain in service today as guiding base camps, important stopovers for the recreational clientele, and guides’ lunch sites. They are a critical linchpin to a stressed local economy hinged almost exclusively on the commerce of guided fishing and the camp owner community.

The prices offered by Lyme to camp owners for their leased lots sent a shock wave through the group, which assembled in November at the Town Hall. It appeared to all of them that Lyme had inflated values far above comparable Washington County lakeshore properties. Twelve of them set out to prove it.

Independent appraisals of the 12 lots came in with a fair market value of one-third to one-half of Lyme Timber’s prices. Fearful of losing their camps, each owner made counteroffers adding an average of $30,000 to their appraisals. In a chill letter, Lyme’s response was threefold: Their leases were going up, their lots were going on the

public block, and their counteroffers were rejected.

It now looked as if the popular preservation project had a dark side — sacrificial lambs — and that they would be none other than the owners of these generations-old camps. Questions began to bubble up: Did the land trust know what its new partner had in store for Grand Lake Stream’s camp owner community? Did the luminaries who lent their names to the project know? Exactly who knew, but didn’t reveal the potential for such a damaging outcome? Or, alternatively, is it just as surprising to everybody else as it is to the camp owners?

“Forest and Lakes — For People — Forever,” the community-based Downeast Lakes Land Trust’s tag line, is suddenly ringing hollow to people who have been in the community and on the lakes since before the dawn of land trusts.

Instead of being forced to pay up to twice the property’s value, some have vowed to tear down their camps — a profound local loss representing a significant part of Grand Lake Stream’s history. Some of the 33 have settled with Lyme Timber. Others, already elderly, take a dim view of mortgaging their futures so unreasonably. The rest are waiting for either an ax or prices to fall before making their decision. Hanging in the balance is the very economy and future the “West Grand Lake Community Forest” is pledged to protect.

That people who cherish the woods and waters of a region make good contributors and good custodians is time-tested in Maine’s history. Now, caught between a forced sale at inflated prices and the withering effects of a recession, these contributors wonder how they became the unacknowledged shadow of this conservation effort.

Randy Spencer is the author of “Where Cool Waters Flow/Four Seasons with a Master Maine Guide,” which includes a history of Grand Lake Stream and its guiding culture. He is the owner of one of the four oldest guide camps in the region.

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