May 27, 2008

Appalachian Trail region is focus of easement purchase initiative

The high mountain peaks in northern Franklin County and the remote region around the Appalachian Trail that crosses them are actively being targeted for conservation by an environmental group working to purchase easements from landowners that would keep the region open for public use, sustainable forestry and recreation.

The 32-mile section of the Appalachian Trail is considered one of the most spectacular stretches of the entire trail due to its remoteness and vistas. The Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust wants to permanently protect this landscape from slowly spreading industrial and residential development.

“Basically, our projects are multiple-use projects, intended to benefit the forest products industry and the nature-based tourism industry as well as the (Appalachian Trail) itself,” said the land trust’s director, Christopher Beach.

Conservation land purchases, or easements, ensure public access while keeping land in private hands.

The process works by leveraging philanthropic donations to federal and state funds. The land trust’s partners include the Land for Maine’s Future program and the Forest Society of Maine’s sustainable working forest program. Together, they have purchased 2,220 acres in the targeted region since 2002.

Beach teaches environmental history and conservation law at Unity College. In a recent presentation to the Franklin County commissioners, he said a marketing plan is being developed that would “brand” the region as the “High Peaks” to promote nature-based tourism.

“One of our goals is to give it a recognizable name that tells residents and visitors and potential investors that this is a really special and unique place that they should know and appreciate,” Beach said.

Beach said this economic development strategy would attract investors interested in protecting the region and would market it as a place where tourists can still experience remote nature.

The area is bounded by the communities of Rangeley, Phillips, Kingfield and Stratton, with Saddleback Mountain on the west; Mt. Abraham on the south; Spaulding, Redington, the Crockers and Sugarloaf mountains in the middle; and the Bigelow Range to the north. A core piece of the land lies within 17,000 acres that is one of the largest roadless areas in the state.

“The High Peaks area is especially important in Maine because it is such a scarce natural resource,” Beach said.

In this region, there are about 21,000 acres that are over 2,700 feet above sea level – only six-tenths of one percent of the state’s total area. But it is also one of only three areas in Maine where the mountains rise above 4,000 feet, and 10 of the 14 highest mountains, including the Bigelow Range, are in this region.

Beach said the organization is talking with owners of large blocks of forestland about purchasing easements. Town officials, snowmobile and ATV clubs, hunters, horseback riders, cross-country skiers, mountain bikers and fishing enthusiasts are also being involved in the conversation.

“We want to create a united effort to preserve traditional public access to private lands,” Beach said.

Franklin County Commissioner Fred Hardy said he is a strong proponent of property rights, and protecting a “view shed” runs the danger of impinging on a landowner’s right to do what he or she wants with their land.

“Anytime you draw a line where there can be no development, that greatly changes the value of that person’s land and what he can do with that land,” Hardy said.

He said environmental groups wield considerable power over where developments, such as wind-power projects, can be sited.

“Appalachian Trail people are just as concerned as anyone about our country’s energy future, but they remain committed to balanced landscape conservation policies that support other economic visions such as nature-based tourism,” Beach said.

“Nature-based tourism needs scenery and scenery is something we need to think about.”

By Betty Jespersen
Staff Writer

Morning Sentinel

27 May 2008

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