MILLINOCKET -- Last April, we read about the Backcountry Project, a series of meetings in which Maine state agencies conspired in secret with several environmental organizations to gain control of the rural areas of Maine.
When the news broke, the Millinocket Town Council appeared united in its concern, expressing shock and distaste, particularly over the secretive nature of these meetings, and the sense of betrayal in learning that our own state agencies were conspiring against us.
When the news of the Katahdin Lake land swap came out, do you remember Councilor Polstein feigning surprise, then arguing that the council needed to support it, if only so that it could have a seat at the table?
Well, Polstein was already sitting at the table, but he wasn't representing your interests.
Even before you knew about the Katahdin Lake land swap, Polstein was telling state officials that he was going to persuade the council to support it, or at least not to oppose it.
We have since learned that the Backcountry Project was no secret to at least two members of our town council, Councilors Matt Polstein and Bruce McLean, both of whom, we now know, were themselves involved in these secret meetings at least as early as December of 2005.
In hopes of learning more about the clandestine project, we submitted Freedom of Access requests to the state agencies that we knew to be involved. As a result of these FOAA requests, we received copies of an email exchange between members of the Backcountry Project, dated December of 2005, which included Polstein and McLean. Looking further, we learned that Polstein had been one of three featured speakers at a project event, in which another of the speakers was Steven Spencer, the Backcountry Project director.
Rather than alerting the town that they were elected to serve, they pretended to know nothing of it, even while they were very much a part of it, especially on the part of Polstein.
As the emails that we received were part of an ongoing discussion, it was clear that the two councilors were a part of this project even before that time. In an attempt to discover just how long and deep their involvement may have been, we submitted additional FOAA requests, including the two councilors, who we knew had indeed received email correspondence relating to the Backcountry Project.
Rather than submitting to our legal requests, the councilors consulted their attorney, at the expense of the taxpayers. The town attorney, Dean Beaupain, a co-founder along with Polstein, of the Millinocket Area Growth and Investment Council (MAGIC), which employs McLean as its executive director, devised a dubious scheme to keep these public records secret.
At Beaupain's urging, the town manager was designated the keeper of the records, and the town manager was directed to charge us upfront the maximum amount permitted by law, for the town to conduct a search for records that the town manager knew in advance would not be found.
In other words, we were directed to pay the town of Millinocket $500 for the town to conduct a search for emails between the two councilors and various state agencies involved in the Backcountry Project, even though the town manager knew beforehand that the neither of the two councilors had forwarded such emails to the town.
The emails existed, we know, because we have copies of a portion of the email exchange. The emails were in the possession of both councilors Polstein and McLean, as they were addressed to them. By law, public officials are required to retain such records for a period of at least one year and, by law, they are subject to FOAA requests.
However, neither Councilor Polstein or Councilor McLean complied, as required by law, with our requests. Rather, the town requested payment from us for a service that it knew in advance that it could not provide, the result of a scheme intended to protect Polstein and McLean from having to disclose their involvement in the Backcountry Project.
McLean never replied to our requests at all, while Polstein replied only to the first request, and then only to direct us to the town, which he knew did not have the information we were looking for, and did not have it because he had never forwarded it to the town.
We did receive additional documents from some of the other state agencies involved, however; some of which answered any questions we may have had about why these councilors wanted to hide this information from the public.
The documents we received relating to the Backcountry Project also involved the Katahdin Lake land swap, Roxanne Quimby, and Matt Polstein, with the councilor's fingers fully into all these pies.
Included in these documents was the draft of a letter from Matt Polstein to Roxanne Quimby, congratulating her on her work preserving the Maine woods, and suggesting that she consider the purchase of additional land. This became a part of the record when Polstein sent it to Ralph Knoll and Karin Tilberg, asking them to review it and recommend any changes. Currently Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Conservation for the State of Maine, Tilberg formerly served as the Maine Director of the Northern Forest Alliance. Knoll serves as Deputy Director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
Then there were also the emails that Councilor Polstein sent to members of the House and Senate, following the council discussion on the Katahdin Lake land swap, in which he sought to persuade them that the council didn't really mean that stuff they said about traditional values.
"I am not happy about the way Nick Sambides covered the council discussion on Katahdin Lake and I have sent Herbie and Paul the following email that I am now sending for reference to you," he wrote Tilberg and Knolls. He continued: "I may never get used to the way some reporters miss the big picture and focus on an area of controversy that seems to fit their own notion of the world (or in our case, Millinocket's narrow mindedness)."
Nick Sambides writes for the Bangor Daily News.
From speaking to other members of the House and Senate, we know that many more besides Rep. Clark and Sen. Davis were contacted by Councilor Polstein, who argued in favor of the Millinocket Lake land swap.
In his correspondence with members of the legislature, Polstein said that the newspaper report of the council meeting was incorrect, and that, while the council thinks that it would "be nice" if traditional uses were supported, they ultimately felt that it was in their best interests to support the deal even if traditional uses were not included. He tells the legislature that, while Councilors Busque and Cyr were clearly opposed to the land swap, the other five councilors think that the 6000 acres included in the Katahdin Lake deal should be a part of the park, and that traditional uses, while "nice," were not really that important.
He goes on to tell the legislators that he believes that it is in the "best economic and social interest of the area for the Katahdin Lake piece to remain relatively untouched by intensive recreational or forestry activity and becoming a part of the park represents the best way to achieve that."
Polstein discusses traditional uses, saying that he believes that hunting could be accomodated with little or no impact if it remains relatively roadless, and suggests that no one would care if snowmobiling was to be prohibited.
In short, Councilor Polstein tells the legislators that the council was in support of the Katahdin Lake deal and that the members of the council didn't really mean that stuff about traditional uses.
Even more interesting is Polstein's letter to Roxanne Quimby.
He begins by informing her that much of the land remaining between Katahdin Lake and the East Branch would be coming up for sale, and suggests that she consider buying it.
"I am writing you today because I suspect you may continue to have an interest in some or all of this land," he writes Quimby, "and because I see one piece of it that seems to fit well in your portfolio of land holdings. I also believe this piece offers a unique opportunity to add important conservation values at the same time that it is distinct from the rest of your holdings and as such could perhaps serve as a bridge between you and the locals who can't understand the need for a wilderness preserve or sanctuary."
Polstein identifies that "piece" as being the remaining Gardner acreage between Wassataquoik Stream and Katahdin Lake in T-3 and T4-R8.
Polstein then tells Quimby of his fantasies. "I have a fantasy that some day the Towns of the Katahdin Region could join together with the conservation community including yourself, and the State to protect through easements or fee purchase, a mix of well thought out shared values this land currently and for the future can meet."
"I have found you to be thoughtful and contemplative, showing a deep concern for history, the environment and people in the context of our Maine Woods Forever discussions," Polstein writes Quimby. "If I can further help you to understand the importance of specific areas and activities in the Katahdin region to the local people and at the same time build a bridge between the conservation community and the people here who see it only as an unwelcome intruder, I am always available." Polstein then concludes, wish Quimby "Good luck in your current and future endeavors."
To be fair, he does talk about traditional values but it's likely that they don't represent the same traditions that most of you may have in mind, since his support for hunting is predicated on there being no roads, and he is quite clear that snowmobiling is not really important to anyone.
Given that Polstein and McLean both refused to comply with our legal FOAA requests, it can be reasonably assumed that they didn't want you to know about the part they played in the Backcountry Project, and Polstein, in particular, likely wanted to keep confidential his reinterpretation of the council discussion regarding the Katahdin Lake land swap, and of course, his interesting correspondence with Roxanne Quimby.
The Backcountry Project is a collaborative plan intended to limit the use of the Maine woods, devised by several of our state agencies, including Baxter State Park, as well as numerous environmental organizations including, but not limited to the Maine Coast Protection Initiative, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Downeast Lakes Land Trust, Maine Wilderness Guide Organization, Maine Audubon Society, Maine Island Trail Association, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Northeast Wilderness Trust, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Chewonki Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, the Northern Forest Alliance, and many others, including our own town councilors, Matt Polstein and Bruce McLean, both associated with the Millinocket Area Growth and Investment Council. Were they representing you?
We now await the spin that is sure to follow.