Group Says Ecotourism Plan is Wrong for Bigelow Preserve

Western Maine's future may well lie in the economic development of the state-owned Bigelow Preserve as an ecotourism destination.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Western Maine's future may well lie in theeconomic development of the state-owned Bigelow Preserve as anecotourism destination. But precisely how and where that developmentshould occur was a matter of hot debate in the State House on Monday.

For several years, a nonprofit group called the Western MountainsFoundation has touted its plan to develop a 180-mile cross-countryski trail with a dozen strategically placed lodges between Rockwoodand Rumford.

But plans to locate a portion of that trail on state preserve landhave raised the ire of local members of Friends of Bigelow, who fearthat the trail and hut development could change the nature of thewild preserve.

Legislators on the Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation committeeon Monday considered a bill, LD 143, which would change the state lawthat created Bigelow to permit the sort of groomed ski trails thatthe foundation hopes to develop.

The preserve already allows snowmobiles -- in fact, more than 600sleds were counted crossing the preserve during a 4-hour period on arecent winter Saturday. The forestry activities permitted by law meanthat skidders, feller-bunchers and other heavy equipment alreadyoperate on the preserve -- so why not a few cross-country skiers,asked the bill's sponsor Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds.

Friends of Bigelow doesn't oppose a few cross-country skiers,answered the group's volunteer chairman, Dick Fecteau of Farmington.

"It's not a bad plan. It's just in the wrong place," he said.

"Thisis a hard project to oppose. It's like motherhood and apple pie. Butthe devil is in the details." Bigelow Preserve is an anomaly -- astate preserve created by Maine voters who approved a 1976 referendumto purchase the 36,000 or so acres for public use, after learningthat developers planned to transform the mountain into a secondSugarloaf.

For legislators to take it upon themselves to rewrite that law forthe benefit of a single developer -- albeit a nonprofit one -- issimply wrong, Fecteau said.

The Maine Department of Conservation has already begun a regularreview of the state management plan for Bigelow Preserve -- lastupdated in 1989 -- and expects to complete its work by May. Thatpublic process is the appropriate forum for deciding what kind ofactivities should be allowed in the preserve -- not a politicallycharged legislative hearing, Fecteau said.

Proponents called Nutting's bill a technical change that does notalter the spirit of the 1976 vote and touted the economic benefit ofthese sorts of developments. Supporters went so far as to invite JohnWood, New Zealand's Ambassador to the United States, to spend Mondaybriefing the committee, local media and Gov. John Baldacci about hisnation's successful policy of inviting private entities to createtrail systems on public land.

Nearly a third of the island nation's land mass is set aside forpublic conservation, and the government simply could not afford tomaintain the trails and amenities users wanted, Wood said. By sharingthe responsibility with commercial guide operations, New Zealand hasboosted its ecotourism industry to a major player in the nation'seconomy, drawing hikers from around the world, he said. On the SouthIsland's west coast alone, where two-thirds of the million annualtourists to the country visit natural attractions, 15 percent of alljobs are linked to ecotourism, the ambassador said.

"The New Zealand experience shows that, managed correctly, the needto sustain and improve conservation can be balanced with the goal ofsatisfying the needs of visitors and promoting economic growth," Woodsaid.

Severin Beliveau, the Augusta lawyer and businessman who invited Woodto speak, said he recently hiked New Zealand's famous trails with hissons, and that he came to believe the Western Mountain Foundationtrail system would be a first step in bringing similar economicbenefits to Maine.

The Baldacci administration agrees -- to a point. ConservationCommissioner Pat McGowan spoke Monday of his belief in developing newecotourism opportunities, but asked legislators to delay theirdecision on the bill until an ongoing discussion toward a compromiseover the ski trail's location could run its course.

Two years ago, the Forestry, Conservation and Agriculture Committeeconsidered nearly identical legislation, but the bill was droppedfrom consideration after the Western Mountains Foundation and Friendsof Bigelow agreed to consider mediation. The groups met and signed aninformal agreement that would shift the trail so that less than amile of it would cross Bigelow Preserve, instead crossing land ownedby the Penobscot Indian Nation, McGowan explained.

Just last week, the tribe's Lands Committee approved the plan, butthe full Tribal Council is not expected to consider the request untilnext month, said Tim Love, economic adviser to the tribe.

But Fecteau stressed that the agreement is nonbinding and that theproposed legislation would allow the foundation or other developersto place the trails anywhere they want in the Bigelow Preserve.

Opponents also spoke of their concern that the $7 million-plusproject is a major risk. If the ski trails and "huts" -- which arereally high-end sporting camps that can sleep 40 people apiece --aren't financially self-sustaining, they could be sold off tocommercial enterprises that would drastically change the region,Fecteau said.

Supporters of the plan countered that fund-raising efforts areprogressing and that the town of Carrabassett and companies such asL.L. Bean, Plum Creek and Wagner Forest Management are already on board,either offering easements or financial support. Phase one of theproject -- building three lodges located between Carrabassett and TheForks -- is on schedule to be completed by fall 2006, with a pricetag of $4 million. But convincing donors to support the project isdifficult when the trail's route is in limbo, they said.

"This bill is pro-environment, pro-conservation, pro-people andpro-jobs -- how can you be against it?" Jay Dwight, a member of thefoundation's board, asked legislators.

A work session on the bill has not been scheduled yet.

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