May 24, 2018
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Public camping lacking Down East

By Quinton King, Special to the BDN

I believe the state could provide better camp site support on Maine public reserved lands.

The state is acquiring land from paper companies and sawmills at a breakneck pace. It sounds like a win-win scenario. What better way to protect Maine’s treasures against real estate development while companies reduce their property tax bills on idle forests?

Corporations divest the land to the state under the stipulation that the land’s future lumber harvest will remain available for eventual sale back to those original corporations. While these mostly over-cut tracts of land struggle to recover, these companies can still reap the rewards of ownership without responsibility, through the corporate privatization of public land.

To explain, we need to first examine the state’s definition of the phrase “Maine public reserved land.”

The state acquires large tracts of land through cash transaction, trades for better land, trades for tax breaks or very occasionally as gifts. This state acquisition ends the property tax revenue stream but the state gains revenue by selling the remaining trees back to the former landowners.

Now let’s examine what “Maine public reserved land” means in practice.

We believed these lands would be protected from harmful real estate development. However, developers would find most acres of these tracts inherently undesirable in the form of uncuttable mountain, over-cut woods or swamp. Few acres are suitable for real estate development — and that is mostly waterfront.

We believed that top priority is placed on public access to these public lands. But in most cases, the state immediately blocks existing access roads, posts “No Camping” and “No ATV” signs and limits most access to foot traffic only. It closes some campsites altogether — more than 40 so far — and limits sites for fireplaces, all in an attempt to minimize maintenance costs.

So where is the benefit to taxpayers who own the land?

A first example is Donnell Pond. It hosts Schoodic Beach, a premiere beach and camp site. For many years prior to the state’s acquisition, countless campers drove on private forest roads, in their well-stocked vehicles, for extended stays on this magnificent camping beach.

Enter state ownership. Immediately eliminating vehicular access, the state’s resulting woodland footpath is a pulse-raising, 30-minute trek that is virtually inaccessible for long-term camping.

Now, outdoorsmen must either hike with precious few supplies in tow or somehow acquire a boat and risk their trailers to the unimproved boat launch located on the opposite side of the pond. A three-hour canoe trip is now the most viable way to haul a few days’ supplies for a group.

Upon arrival, one is entreated to a single outhouse in the remote woods, no trash cans and a few dilapidated wooden tables.

A second example is the longstanding vehicular access roads to the camp sites of Spring River Lake. The state owned it or had rights for camping until one day the campsites were closed entirely.

A third example is Long Pond. Years of corporate stewardship had provided us with camp sites on the western shore. Enter the state’s ownership. Those formerly public camp sites are now privately leased by the state to individuals, while maintaining the crucial drivability which the state denies our public campsites.

Additionally, the state has chosen to place its million dollar boat launch at this small pond with a frustratingly limited fishery and no public campsites. It could have instead complemented the existing superior resources of nearby Spring River Lake: three times the size; public camping; and a lush wild fishery.

Was this expensive amenity provided in preference to the pond’s 20 exclusively privately leased campsites? Maine has effectively privatized Long Pond’s public land.

What’s happened to the millions of dollars from the wood? What are the leasing terms? What happened to those sites which were completely closed and did the state sell the land?

The state has a very different view of the phrase “Maine public reserved land” than do many of its citizens. By changing the way the state interprets that phrase, maybe we can reclaim and improve our magnificent public campsites.

Quinton King is a fifth-generation Mainer. He built his home on his family’s homestead in Monson. He travels the state seasonally while working in the fishing, logging and construction industries.

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