TOWNSHIP 2 RANGE 8, EAST OF BAXTER PEAK, Maine — Lucas St. Clair clearly has heard the question before. And he’s got plenty of answers that he’s happy to share. He also realizes that sometimes, it’s best to simply stand back and let Mother Nature do the talking for you.
So ask him again: What is it, exactly, that makes the central Maine land his mother bought so special, so unique, so memorable, that it ought to be preserved forever as a national park?
Ask, and he’ll bring you here, to a newly cleared promontory he knows will be a highlight should Elliotsville Plantation Inc.’s national park plan ever gain the momentum he thinks it should.
Katahdin looms in front of you, stark, magnificent. To the south, far down the valley, Millinocket Lake shimmers. More than 10 miles to the north, also visible, is Katahdin Lake. In between, miles and miles of forest.
This is the million-dollar view. St. Clair, the son of millionaire landowner Roxanne Quimby, simply calls it “the overlook,” for now. Others just say “Wow.”
“I think anyone who lives on this side, the east side of Baxter State Park, in Patten or Shin Pond, would say their view of Katahdin is the very best in the state,” St. Clair had said hours earlier, before a field trip Wednesday designed to show off some of the land that Elliotsville Plantation Inc. recently opened to the public. “And I totally agree with them.”
St. Clair makes no secret of the fact that providing for public access, which included Monday’s announcement that EPI would immediately open 40,000 acres to hunting, is a conscious decision that he hopes will help convince the public that the affected parcels are worth preserving, either as a national park or national recreation area.
It also reflects a new-look EPI, which has drawn the ire of some residents for years because of land access policies that were more restrictive than had existed before Quimby began buying up the land.
The decision to open up EPI land to the public was not a knee-jerk reaction to an oft-stated perception that EPI — or more specifically, Quimby herself — cared little about the locals she had affected with her land-use regulations.
For example, leaseholders on EPI land were told several years ago they were no longer welcome. Camps, sometimes in families for decades, were torn down or relocated. Feelings were hurt.
Since 2011, St. Clair has been in charge of changing that perception and trying to convince locals that despite their past experiences, he was ready to listen to them and reach agreements that benefit everyone.
“The last two years has been information gathering,” St. Clair said. “Having as many cups of coffee with people who will talk with me as possible.”
Terry Hill, proprietor of Shin Pond Village, a campground, store and restaurant near the EPI land, was among those who met with St. Clair.
“I wasn’t happy [with previous decisions that Quimby or her representatives had implemented],” Hill said. “I told Lucas, ‘I don’t know that a park is the answer, but I respect what you guys want to do with your land and I respect the fact that you’re willing to come and talk to us and see how you can make it work in the meantime.”
Many cups of coffee later, St. Clair had heard the message, loud and clear.
“People feel like they’ve been victims of powers outside their control, and I represent that to a lot of people,” St. Clair said. “I can’t blame anyone for being angry and upset. If they want to take it out on me initially, that’s fine. And if we can get beyond that and start to help each other, then that’s really what we’re trying to get to.”
Arrangements have been made to create a snowmobile trail. An ATV trail has been opened.
And while that healing begins to take place, EPI and St. Clair — the president of the board of directors of the company that oversees that land — are getting to work.
No, this isn’t a national park. Not yet. But it’s looking more like one every day. And that’s by design as well.
“What I had done when I started was figure out how a national park unit would allow hunting, and [I] spent the last two years figuring that out, that [in] national recreation areas you can legislate for hunting and snowmobiling and provide that and make it last into perpetuity,” St. Clair said. “Once we figured that out, we thought, ‘OK. The next step is to actually do it.’ [And] the more we can make this look like a national park, and look like a national recreation area, the farther along it will be.”
Signs are everywhere
So there’s a big mountain nearby. And woods. And plenty of water. But does it look like a national park?
Almost, at times.
New signs have been posted so that visitors know when they’ve crossed a property border onto EPI land.
All of those signs, as well as accompanying mile markers on a newly built, 18-mile loop road, will look familiar to visitors who’ve been to other state or national parks.
They’re all painted brown … just like they are in Acadia, or nearby Baxter.
“That’s by design,” St. Clair said, smiling, the message clear.
The gates, too, are painted park-service brown. But there’s another reason for that, St. Clair said.
Gates are controversial. And over the years, EPI has received criticism for gates, even if the gates belonged to abutting landowners and had nothing to do with land that Quimby has purchased.
Now the distinction is much more clear.
“Everyone else paints their gates yellow,” St. Clair said. “Ours are brown. And we’ve only got two of them.”
On Wednesday, St. Clair had to hop out of a truck and unlock the gate that allows access to the loop road. And while that seems like it might mean visitors aren’t welcome quite yet, that’s not really the case.
“It’s not quite Prius-ready,” St. Clair said, explaining that the road is rough and he’s not confident that low-slung two-wheel-drive cars can travel the entire distance without hitting a rock or getting stuck. In the meantime, EPI ambassadors Mark and Susan Adams, who live at nearby Lunksoos Camps, will open the gate for anybody who wants to drive the loop. And if visitors don’t have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, chances are good that the Adamses will load up their own truck and take the passengers on a tour.
An added benefit of a visit with the Adamses: Once at Lunksoos, visitors can chat with the couple about one of the camp’s most famous visitors. When Donn Fendler emerged from the wilderness of that “mountain in Maine” after becoming lost back in 1939, he found the relative civilization of Lunksoos.
Not far from the loop road, EPI also has taken measures that should make visitors more comfortable … and the environment cleaner.
In one section, EPI owns the land on the left side of a road. On that parcel, hunting is not allowed. On the other side of the road, another landowner’s property is open to hunting, and is quite popular.
On the EPI side of the road is a large, sandy area where hunters and other visitors often have camped, leaving human waste and debris in the woods.
This summer, EPI constructed a vault toilet, built a large picnic table, and constructed a permitted fire ring for campers, most of whom were not EPI guests.
“They were using it anyway,” St. Clair said, explaining that cleaning up the site, rather than try to block it off, made the best sense.
Woods, waters abound
Of course, a potential national park has got to have more than a single overlook. And while St. Clair is proud of the panorama at the spot EPI has begun to spruce up, he says there’s plenty more that visitors will enjoy.
“[What is] a bit taken for granted, but incredibly special and unique to this region is miles and miles of uninterrupted forest,” St. Clair said. “That doesn’t exist in many other places.”
And then there’s the water.
“We have three incredibly majestic rivers — the East Branch of the Penobscot, the Wassataquoik, and the Seboeis rivers,” St. Clair said. “There are beautiful waterfalls, wide open, broad expanses of water, very old stands of silver maple.”
Matt Polstein, a Millinocket business owner, said one of the remote property’s biggest assets has also made it a mystery to many.
“I think part of the lack of appreciation comes from the lack of access,” Polstein said. “This is the side of [Baxter State Park] that’s harder to get close to, because there weren’t public roads … it was all woods roads or no roads, and then the barrier of the East Branch [stopping visitors from] getting close to Katahdin and into that beautiful wilderness setting. A park will actually improve access to that area.”
On Wednesday, St. Clair met with a group of Millinocket civic leaders to talk about a potential park, and was encouraged by their response.
Still, he knows that there are plenty of other conversations to be had, cups of coffee to be shared, opinions to be listened to.
“The timeline for [congressional approval of a park] is really hard to figure out because there’s not like, ‘On Nov. 7 we’re all going to the ballot box [to] vote on this and it’s going to be yes or no,’” St. Clair said.
Instead, he’s working in the Katahdin region to gain support from more residents, and in Washington, D.C., so that EPI is ready should the pendulum swing and an actual bill is proposed.
“We want this region to convince [the Maine congressional delegation] that this is a good thing for the region,” St. Clair said.