RANGELEY, MAINE — As winter snow melted, the road out of Rangeley to Saddleback's ski lodge exposed seven miles of potholes. Near the lodge, ski lifts are spotted with rust. And without snow or skiers to add a winter mood, the empty two-story lodge is scuffed and worn.
"People here say Saddleback is the way skiing started, and still is," says Saddleback office manager Theresa Thompson with bittersweet humor.
What has contributed to Saddleback's rusty time warp is a heated 12-year battle with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC).
The issue is how to use 2.7 miles of mountain ridge that belongs to Saddleback, but is part of the Appalachian Trail (AT).
The dispute is the longest running unfinished business of the AT, a national 2,160-mile footpath stretching from Georgia to Maine. Hundreds of land owners over the last decade have been compensated, or saw the trail moved to keep the path continuous.
The 4,100-foot-high ridge at Saddleback is important because it is one of the few alpine zones in the state with a breathtaking 360-degree view, and is unlike any other area along the AT. The NPS wants to protect the pristine character for hikers. Saddleback, a recreational business, wants skiers to enjoy it too.
The unresolved issue hinges on a familiar dilemma. In a rural region in need of economic stimulus, how can a ski area expand when unique environmental concerns have to be met too? Is compromise possible, or will the eminent domain authority of the federal government create a ruling that may end the controversy, protect the trail, but discourage viable expansion?
Decorum among the adversaries has all but disappeared. Pamela Underhill, the AT Park Manager in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., says Saddleback is "playing a shell game with us," and cites several efforts to accommodate the resort. Saddleback attorney Owen Wells has called for a congressional investigation, and says NPS has been "disingenuous" and "exceeding its lawful mandate."
And Greg Sweetser, the former marketing manager of Saddleback, commenting on the costs of the long dispute, says, "The environmental tactic of bleeding them dry is certainly working."
Other ski areas in Maine, such as Sunday River, have prospered over the last 10 years. Saddleback has changed little. Rangeley, a town of 1,500, has tired of the 12-year dispute, and turned to welcoming thousands of snow mobilers as the heart of the winter economy instead of skiing
The controversy began after Donald Breen, a businessman from the Boston area, bought 11,000 acres at Saddleback. In 1986 he proposed a $35 million expansion of the ski area including new ski facilities and condominiums. NPS was offered a 200-foot-wide corridor for the AT, but turned it down based on standards for the AT.
The remoteness and silence for hikers would be lessened if the new facilities and activity could be seen and heard from the wide ridge. "Currently the ski area near there does not have a huge impact on the existing experience of hikers," says Ms. Underhill. "We want to preserve that."
About 200 to 250 "through" hikers walk the AT at Saddleback each year. Hundreds of day hikers also climb to see the view. During the dispute, skiing has continued at Saddleback, and as many as 70 workers have jobs there in the winter months.
After 1989 public hearings, the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), a state agency that determines land use in remote areas, gave preliminary approval of Saddleback's plan.
But LURC withheld approval for the locations of two new ski lifts within 200 feet of the trail in a pristine bowl-shaped area next to the current ski area. Saddleback was asked to suggest different locations for the lifts and submit a development plan within 18 months.
The resort has not provided the plan. "The principal reason is that the whole real estate development mood in Maine changed dramatically in the early 1990s," says Mr. Wells. And Saddleback did not want to invest large amounts of money if the NPS might declare eminent domain.
Saddleback proposed in 1991 to scale back their expansion plans and offered to sell 2,000 acres to NPS provided there was an agreement on price. After an independent market appraisal, NPS made an offer in l993. "We refused it," says Wells, "It was less than one sixth of what we wanted."
After more negotiations in 1996, Saddleback proposed to donate 300 acres to NPS, at a location to be determined later. Saddleback also asserted the right "to cross the Appalachian Trail with connector ski trails, a road at the base of the mountain" along with electrical and water utilities. The NPS refused.
After a June 1996 meeting, NPS and ATC backed away from previous positions and reduced their proposed land-acquisition corridor by 70 percent. But they remained opposed to any ski trails crossing the trail in the alpine area.
Saddleback sent NPS a letter stating there was "no benefit to continued negotiation."
With Saddleback's approval, NPS is doing a fair market appraisal of the area, this time with input from an impartial ski-area consultant to help end the differences of opinion.
The appraisal will then be offered for public comment before NPS makes a decision perhaps by summer's end.
"At this point we are doing at taxpayer expense what Saddleback has never been willing to do," says Underhill, "which is to determine if it is feasible to develop the bowl [as a ski area]."
Saddleback's position remains distrustful. "They still contemplate taking a substantial portion of the bowl," says Wells.
Judy Hunger, publisher of the Rangeley Highlander, voices a typical attitude. "[Donald Breen] would have been a good steward to Saddleback," she says. "But over the years the town simply went on to other things like promoting snow mobiling."