The East Branch of the Penobscot River near Whetstone Falls in the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument has received $380,000 to potentially acquire two tracts of private land whose owners had signaled a willingness to sell to the federal government before the monument’s creation four years ago.

The U.S. Department of the Interior recently announced that Katahdin Woods and Waters – a roughly 87,500-acre national monument located just east of Baxter State Park – received the money to acquire unnamed tracts that “will provide enhanced recreational opportunities for visitors to enjoy.”

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is among 46 projects nationwide to receive a share of $125 million in land and water conservation funding included in the Great American Outdoors Act passed by Congress and signed by President Trump earlier this year.

Tim Hudson, Katahdin Woods and Waters’ superintendent with the National Park Service, said the money “showed up last Friday” and that negotiations would soon begin with the current owners. He estimated that the two parcels – one located along the East Branch of the Penobscot River and the other a wooded parcel near Patten – encompass 3,000 to 4,000 acres and both include snowmobile trails used by wintertime visitors to the monument.

The two tracts of land were not part of the original 87,500 acres donated to the federal government in August 2016 by Elliotsville Plantation Inc., the nonprofit foundation run by Roxanne Quimby and her family. But the executive order signed by former President Barack Obama contains a little-noticed clause stating that if the federal government acquires additional lands “within the boundaries described on the accompanying map, such lands and interests in lands shall be reserved as a part of the monument.”

Hudson said that because the two parcels were referenced in the original proclamation and included within the boundary map, they will not require additional authorization. The Quimby family’s yearslong quest to create a national park or monument in Maine’s North Woods deeply divided local residents and became a major political issue, although the controversy has largely subsided since the designation.

“It’s for parcels that are already in our legislation,” Hudson said. “This was not land that the Quimbys ever owned.”

Hudson declined to name the landowner, saying he wasn’t sure if the properties had changed hands in recent years.

But in an August 2016 letter to then Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a representative of the Baskahegan Co. requested that the two parcels “be considered for inclusion within the acquisition boundary” of the potential new unit of the National Park System. The Maine-based company owns more than 100,000 acres of timberlands in Maine, which are managed for sustainable forestry.

Writing to Jewell three weeks before Obama created the monument via executive order, the president of the Maine-based timberlands company, Roger Milliken, noted that the land was contiguous to the Elliotsville Plantation’s holdings.

“The parcel in Township 3, Range 7 lies between EPI’s Hunt Farm and Three Rivers parcels on the east side of the East Branch, across from the state’s Wassataquoik Public Reserved Land and the confluence of the Wassataquoik Stream and the East Branch,” wrote Milliken, a well-known conservationist who has served as chairman of the board of directors at The Nature Conservancy. “The Patten parcel connects to EPI’s Seboeis River South parcel and provides a connection through the Happy Corner Road to State Route 11. Both parcels could be valuable for management and recreational purposes.”

Milliken stressed in his letter, however, the company’s understanding that inclusion of the land within the acquisition boundary would not automatically make the property part of the park system but would “allow all or a portion of the property to become part of the monument should we decide to sell or otherwise convey it.”

Neither Milliken nor the current president of Baskahegan Co. could be reached for comment last week.

Andrew Bossie, executive director of the nonprofit group Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, was excited that the money had been included in the Great American Outdoors Act and credited members of Maine’s congressional delegation for their work on the bill.

Bossie was particularly pleased at the prospect of adding additional water frontage along the East Branch, which he credits as having “turned me from a backpacker to a paddler” after his very first trip down the river years ago. He also noted that one of the key features of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument – in addition to majestic views of Mount Katahdin in neighboring Baxter State Park – is the presence of the three navigable rivers: the East Branch of the Penobscot, the Seboeis and Wassataquoik Stream.

“I’ve had an experience many times where I’ve put in (on the East Branch), spent a couple of nights on the river and saw maybe one or two other paddlers,” Bossie said. “There are very few waterways that you can paddle in the Eastern United States that offer that.”

Hudson noted that before any acquisition takes place, the National Park Service will have to appraise the land and negotiate with the landowners as well as conduct numerous reviews, including environmental assessments of the land. So he said allocation of the money is only a first step in the process.

After years of controversy in local communities, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument appears to be gaining acceptance in the region as well as more visitors from both inside and outside of Maine. The monument itself remains largely unimproved, with extremely limited facilities and rutted gravel roads often better suited to four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles than passenger cars.

But the monument has sparked economic development and investment in a region struggling from losses in the traditional forest products industry.

This past summer season, the monument had just under 30,000 visitors based on estimates from an automated vehicle-counting system, up from 23,000 last year. Those figures also do not include the growing number of snowmobilers who use the trails that crisscross the monument lands during winter.

Bossie said that he feels good about public sentiment toward Maine’s new National Park Service property. He also noted that both the park service and numerous nonprofit organizations are investing heavily in the monument as well as recreational and outdoor education infrastructure on surrounding lands.

But as a property within the national parks system, future visitors will expect more than what is currently offered in the monument.

“We still have work to do, obviously,” Bossie said.

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