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A Magnificent Obsession

At 5,267 toes, Katahdin is Maine’s tallest peak. Shaped like a giant bent horseshoe, the granite massif straddles the East and West Branches of the Penobscot River and rises above Maine’s North Woods. By the requirements of Utah, my home kingdom, Katahdin seems small. But ask all people who have climbed it, and they will attest to its steep, punishing trails. What Katahdin lacks in absolute elevation it claims in cultural prominence. Named for a Wabanaki term for “biggest or most eminent mountain,” it stands on indigenous Penobscot land. The peak’s importance also comes from its affiliation with Percival Proctor Baxter, Class of 1898, who bequeathed the height and surrounding lands to the nation of Maine. In his initial 1931 present, he directed that his donation “for all time be left within the natural wild kingdom.” Baxter’s injunction has become a mantra for his eponymous park: for all time wild. Yet, like every desert, Katahdin turned into not a lot blanketed and preserved as created and managed. As my former student, Luke McKay ’07 argued in his honors thesis, the history of “the wilderness concept in Maine” increases important questions about Maine’s finest mountain and other wild areas as well.

The path closer to “all the time wild” began with Henry David Thoreau, who visited Katahdin inside the autumn of 1846. When he left for Maine, Thoreau, just shy of thirty, became still an obscure Harvard graduate working part-time in his circle of relatives’ pencil manufacturing facility. He was additionally halfway via his two-year life at Walden Pond, simply outdoor of Concord, Massachusetts, wherein his test of simple living would restoration his star in the firmament of environmental concept. Yet Thoreau becomes no hardened outdoorsman—as he admitted in Walden, he robotically took journeys into town, in which his mother did the laundry. Maine becomes an exceptional affair. Writing in The Maine Woods, Thoreau imagined himself going into “a primitive timber,” however his own words belied the hyperbole. He traveled from Concord to Bangor by way of rail and steamer, then employed Penobscots and lumbermen as guides. Along the manner, he documented a peopled panorama: native children spearing salmon, sawmills belching smoke and dirt, and hardscrabble farms of log huts and rock-strewn fields. His conflicting observations ramified as he neared Katahdin. He referred to both the “free and happy evergreen timber,” in addition to the “darkish facet of Ktaadn” with its “permanent shadow” looming over the woodland. When he commenced his final ascent, stormy climate made the hike throughout “an extensive aggregation of unfastened rocks” tough and thwarted his summit attempts. Back in Concord, he reimagined his sojourn as an earnest errand into the wild.

“Nature here turned into something savage and lousy, though stunning,” he wrote. “Here changed into no guy’s lawn, however the unhandselled globe… It became the sparkling and herbal floor of the planet Earth, as it became made forever and ever.”

Thoreau’s concept of wilderness became romantic and nonsecular. That idea later developed to deal with anxieties over vanishing surroundings and resources. In 1840, almost 87 percent of Maine became covered with the aid of woodland. By 1872, handiest a touch greater than half remained. That equal 12 months, America’s first countrywide park, Yellowstone, become created to salvage the West’s as soon as effective bison herds. Twenty years later, New York installed Adirondack State Park to spare forests imperiled by logging. The following yr, in 1893, at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, a younger history professor named Frederick Jackson Turner declaimed the end of the frontier and with it the driving pressure in the back of American greatness. Wilderness had morphed from a place of worry or redemption into what historian William Cronon diagnosed as an “indispensable area” for countrywide identity. The wild now wished to safeguard. The conservation motion had arrived. Percival Proctor Baxter came of age with that movement. Like many early conservationists, Baxter, born in 1876, got here from privilege. His father, James Phinney Baxter, co-founded the Portland Packing Company, one among New England’s biggest canners of produce and seafood. A six-time period Republican mayor of Portland, the elder Baxter later became a Bowdoin overseer and generous philanthropist. An avid outdoorsman, he also took his kids on fishing and camping journeys throughout Maine.

The younger Baxter inherited both his own family’s fortune and the responsibilities that super wealth entailed. He excelled at Bowdoin, working as an editor of The Orient, co-founding The Bowdoin Quill, the College’s literary mag, and graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. After completing his law diploma at Harvard, he back to Maine controlled his family’s companies and directed his father’s mayoral marketing campaign in 1904, which launched his very own political career. Baxter served multiple terms in the Maine House of Representatives and Senate. In 1920, after reelection to the Senate, he became additionally elected its president with the help of his brother Rupert Henry Baxter, Class of 1894, a kingdom senator from Bath. Early the subsequent yr, when Governor Frederic H. Parkhurst died after only twenty-six days in the workplace, Baxter became the youngest governor in national history. Reelected in 1922, he declined to are seeking a third time period, electing instead to pursue what student Howard Whitcomb called his “staggering obsession”: creating a country park with Katahdin as its centerpiece. Baxter’s Katahdin fixation commenced whilst he changed into a baby-kisser. During his second stint within the House, he recalled attempting to influence his fellow legislators to “purchase the mountainous areas around Mt. Katahdin.” His colleagues alternatively backed an alternative bill in 1919 that allowed for a future nation park using donated land. The following summer season, Baxter, then in the Senate, joined an excursion to Katahdin prepared by lumberman Burton W. Howe to sell a state park for Maine’s centennial. After the journey, Baxter introduced rules in January 1921 to create “Mt. Katahdin State Park.” Addressing the Maine Sportsmen’s Fish and Game Association that month, he asked Mainers to think of the future. “This park will show a blessing to folks that observe us,” he implored, urging them to reject corporations as the sole owners of “hundreds of thousands of acres of Maine forests.” But, with Parkhurst’s sudden loss of life and Baxter’s next advertising as governor, assist for the proposed law eroded and the concept was in no way passed. As governor, Baxter continued to agitate for a Katahdin park, but he also had a broader conservation schedule. When first elected to the legislature as a revolutionary Republican, he believed in public oversight of natural sources and utilities. He added the Fernald Law in 1909 that forbade exporting hydroelectric electricity. He also advocated restoring cutover timberlands in the North Woods. Yet, a committed conservationist inside the mildew of such contemporaries as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first head of america Forest Service, Baxter additionally believed in the proper control of sources. But Baxter’s fealty to conservation failed to sway Maine’s wooden barons. Beyond board feet of lumber, they also noticed tourism bucks in the North Woods. As McKay determined in his thesis, wooden and railway businesses have been promoting outdoor exercise in the vicinity for the reason that past due nineteenth century. Sporting camps dotted the place, and large landowners nurtured assist for his or her monopoly by permitting public get right of entry to non-public assets. “Mainers more or less had common get right of entry to the land,” McKay argued, “however no longer not unusual stewardship.” Given this arrangement, persuading legislators or their rural parts on the need for a park proved daunting. By the time Baxter left the Blaine House, he had become a dedicated preservationist as well. Foiled in Augusta, Baxter turned to his own family’s pocketbook. By the late Twenties, he began shopping, piece by piece, parcels that covered Katahdin and its environs. Baxter supplied his first present in 1931 and, years later, in January 1933—way to the 1919 invoice that allowed for the established order of state parks from donated land—the legislature normal the imparting and created Baxter State Park.

For the following thirty-plus years, Baxter added to his original presentation of five,960 acres even as looking to stability his conservationist and preservationist impulses. The first check turned into maintaining the new national park out of federal arms. A 1935 record by using the National Park Service on Katahdin’s recreational capability opened the discussion. Two years later, US Representative Ralph Owen Brewster, Bowdoin Class of 1909, a fellow Republican and longtime rival of Baxter’s, delivered law to create a Katahdin National Park. Brewster recruited powerful backers for his bill, consisting of Myron Avery, Class of 1920, a Lubec native and head of the Appalachian Trail Conference who supported federal manipulate to make sure the peak will be the path’s northern terminus. Baxter had accurate reason to reject overtures for a countrywide park. Looking west, he could cite several instances wherein Uncle Sam had promoted private concessions in countrywide parks, from swanky lodges to auto camps. In a 1937 editorial for The Portland Press Herald, Baxter claimed that the Park Service might “commercialize this marvelous area.” Automobiles aroused Baxter’s are particularly because so many national parks had been deliberate across the idea of “windshield desert,” as historian David Louter termed the idea. Baxter located supporters inside the venerable Appalachian Mountain Club and the newly created Wilderness Society. He and his allies prevailed, and the law died in Congress. As Baxter acquired extra acreage for the park, he needed to take delivery of more compromises. There were four foremost areas of competition: motors, forestry, looking, and snowmobiling.

The first concession Baxter made turned into on roads. Although he became adamant in his original 1931 gift that “no roads or ways for motor motors” had been permissible, with the aid of the postwar technology his stance became outdated, as Americans commenced hitting the street seeking out outdoor entertainment. By 1957, he admitted that a few roads were vital but advised that “with too many improvements the Wilderness concept will now not be maintained.” A restricted community of graded dust roads, mostly on the park perimeter and unplowed in wintry weather, had been the eventual result. Hunting became an extra painful concession. Baxter changed into an ardent animal lover. As Rupert Baxter White ’55 remembered, his “Uncle Percy” enjoyed coming to weekly Sunday dinners with his great-nephew’s family due to their many puppies. He changed into in no way without considered one of his liked Irish setters. He changed into additionally deeply against looking. The authentic deeds of considering said that the park turned into to “forever be stored as a sanctuary for wild beasts and birds.” In a 1945 letter accompanying addition to the park’s northern segment, he opined that “searching with cameras” need to update “hunting with weapons.” Residents in rural Aroostook and Piscataquis Counties pushed again. George Barnes, a kingdom representative from Houlton, reminded Baxter in 1949 that proscribing searching had financial “implications to sportsmen” and “sporting camp owners” within the North Woods. He threatened to dam Baxter’s subsequent land supply. Baxter bowed to sportsmen’s demands and consented to hunt and trapping (except for moose) on about one-zone of the park’s overall acreage along the northern and southern reaches. Forestry proved to be much less arguable. He had frequently supported the wood enterprise and had championed scientific forestry as a legislator and governor. In the 1955 round of park additions, Baxter requested that new acreage within the park’s northwest quadrant be set apart as a Scientific Forest Management Area. Commenting on his travels to Germany, Canada, and different international locations, he defined “stunning excellent forests that for centuries were producing a crop of timber without depletion.” Today, almost 30,000 acres of what Baxter known as “the leader natural resource of our State” are administered as working forest.

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