The Man Who Loved Wilderness

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In his many deeds of gift, Baxter constantly reiterated his chief stipulations for the use of the land: 1) It shall forever be kept as a state forest and public park for recreational purposes; 2) The land shall be kept forever in a wild state, as a sanctuary for wild beasts and birds; 3) The use of firearms, trapping, and hunting, not including fishing, shall forever be prohibited (exceptions are two sections of the park open to hunting because of stipulations by landowners who sold to Baxter); 4) Aircraft are forbidden to land in the park.

The interpretation of these stipulations has been controversial, and shows no sign of becoming less so. A court case is pending on the proper method of fighting forest fires: is it legitimate to use bulldozers to clear blowdowns or make fire lanes in an area supposed to be “forever wild”? Should snowmobiles be allowed? Should there be spraying of spruce budworm, the scourge of the woods? Is traffic getting so heavy, both in cars on the perimeter roads and in hikers on the trails, that the ecological carrying-capacity of the park is threatened? If so, should Baxter’s deeds be interpreted literally, and only “the people of Maine” be allowed entry? (He never mentioned “citizens of the United States,” much less “people of the world.” This could become a constitutional issue.) Baxter successfully fought off an attempt to make the park into a national park in the 1930’s. A more formidable challenge today is a claim, actively pushed by Maine Indian tribes, to 60 per cent of the state, an area that includes all of the park. The outcome at this writing is uncertain, but the probability is that the park will remain intact, with compensation to the Indians.

Percival Baxter died in 1969 at the age of ninety-two, even at the end something of an enigma to all who knew him. Like a revolving, many-faceted cut of Maine rose quartz, a different side of the man’s personality was revealed according to where the viewer stood, under what illumination. No one knew exactly what prompted his monomania about Katahdin, although John McLeod’s guess seems likely: that majestic mountain looming out of the plain, and the rankling old sense of injustice over how the people of Maine had been deprived of their birthright in public lands. But it might have been a Canadian jay sharing his campfire breakfast, a flock of Canada geese awakening the sky, loons’ maniacal laughter across a darkened lake, a crushed lady’s-slipper, an injured fawn, sunrise on the peak seen from Chimney Pond.

A grandniece remembers Baxter’s last words to her, when he was in his ninety-third year: “Pray for me. It is not that I am afraid of dying, it is just that I have so much left to do.”