One crucial mile creates wide gap for power line project

·4 min read

Oct. 17—Few Mainers have heard of the Johnson Mountain Township and West Forks Plantation public lots.

Covering a combined 1,241 acres, they contain two small ponds with brook trout fisheries surrounded mostly by forest that's managed by the state for timber harvesting. Since 1963, a Central Maine Power transmission line has followed the township boundary across West Forks Plantation.

Would another transmission line bisecting the lots result in a "substantial change" to these so-called public reserved lands?

The answer is at the heart of a legal dispute that could trip up the New England Clean Energy Connect project. The route runs in a 145-mile corridor owned or controlled by Central Maine Power, except for one critical nine-tenths of a mile.

To follow its preferred route, CMP signed a lease in 2014 with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands to cross two public lots in the Upper Kennebec Valley, off U.S. Route 201. At issue now in court is whether the agency properly conducted an assessment of whether the lease would cause a "substantial change" to the public land. A 1993 constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to approve any substantial change on state-owned lands.

Maine has more than 600,000 acres of public reserved lands. Different than state parks, the origin of these lands dates back to Maine's statehood after separating from Massachusetts in 1820. Public lots scattered across northern and eastern Maine were initially established to provide income for schools from timber harvesting revenue.

But Maine lawmakers in the late 19th century sold off the timber harvesting rights to private landowners for little money. The state's ownership rights weren't restored until a century of mismanagement was revealed in a series of investigative stories in 1972 by the Maine Sunday Telegram. Today, the consolidated public lots include some of Maine's top recreational gems, including the Bigelow Preserve, Tumbledown Mountain, Cutler's Bold Coast and Donnell Pond.

And then there are lesser-known holdings such as Johnson Mountain and West Forks. These two adjacent lots were among the original 19th century holdings, according to the bureau.

The two lots are accessible by dirt roads used for forest management and recreation. They are overseen by the bureau per a management plan for the Upper Kennebec Region finalized in 2019. They are part of a scattered collection of public lots in the area managed primarily for timber harvesting.

There are no recreation facilities on the properties. Surveys found no unique wildlife species, according to the management plan.

The two lots are, however, used for fishing and hunting.

The most notable assets are the 21-acre Wilson Hill Pond and 13-acre Little Wilson Pond. Both are brook trout fisheries and state heritage fish waters, an official designation for ponds and streams that appear to have native brook trout and Arctic char populations. The ponds feed into streams that are important for trout spawning and survival during hot weather.

The ponds wouldn't be crossed by the NECEC line, the bureau notes. The line would bisect midway between the ponds and cross over the existing CMP transmission corridor.

During a 2019 site visit, bureau staff noted five small boats stored at Little Wilson Pond, which is accessed by a rough trail to the south shore.

Bureau staff also noted the presence of four bear baiting sites, a recognition that the lots are used by bear hunters. Moose and deer hunters also visit the sites, the plan says.

The lots also contain roughly 1,200 acres of valuable timber — predominately spruce but also a mix of hardwoods such as maples. They are being managed for sustainable harvesting and have been cut twice since coming into state ownership. A total of 9,942 cords were cut during these two harvests, the management plan states.

The existing CMP transmission corridor, called the Jackman Tie Line, follows the township border running east-to-west across the West Forks Plantation lot. The corridor right-of-way is 100 feet wide and maintained to about 70 feet wide, according to CMP. It contains a high-voltage transmission line that starts at the Harris Station hydroelectric dam, which holds back the Kennebec River to create Indian Pond.

As to how the CMP right-of-way came to be on the West Forks Plantation lot, it happened in an era of less scrutiny.

The lease was granted 58 years ago by the State Forest Commissioner. It grants CMP rights "until said Plantation becomes incorporated and until title to said public reserved lot shall become vested in the incorporated town."

Today, there's no chance of that happening.

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