AUGUSTA — Paddlers come from all over the country to experience the wildness and peacefulness of the Allagash River.
But 40 years after Maine voters designated it as the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, the politics surrounding the storied river are anything but peaceful.
Maine’s Legislature is considering a proposal to retain a controversial bridge and allow motor vehicle access to spots used by locals who fear their traditional use of the river is jeopardized. Opponents are fighting the bill as an attempt to undo years of negotiations and a series of hard-won agreements to protect the wilderness of the Allagash.
While the debate focuses on such details as whether locals can put a boat in here or park a truck there, the emotions and animosity are so intense officials described the feud last week as “biblical.”
“There’s groups of people in the state that want to use the river without seeing local people on it,” said Rep. Troy Jackson, D-Fort Kent. “It’s elitism . . . I’m not willing to compromise anymore.”
Others see the proposal as another blow to the thing that makes the Allagash special.
“The fact of the matter is that the majority of the voters of Maine . . . voted to have it be managed as wild,” said Tim Caverly of Millinocket, who was the state’s supervisor of the waterway from 1981 to 1999. “Is it going to be managed as a wild river or is it going to be just another recreational river in a state or national park system?”
Political friction is unavoidable in the Allagash, a protected corridor that extends just 500 feet from either shoreline and is embedded in a vast working forest.
It’s no coincidence, however, that the latest Allagash battle coincides with a clash about hunting and snowmobiling in the Baxter State Park area and an emotional debate about development of timberlands around Moosehead Lake. The future of Maine’s forests has become a dominant political issue in the state in the wake of unprecedented land sales in the past 15 years.
“Huge changes in the North Woods have put fear into everybody,” said Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Economic struggles caused by the paper industry’s decline also are feeding into rural Mainers’ resentment and wariness of outsiders.
“It’s this whole issue . . . of locals versus those from away, and how can we balance the needs of both,” said Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds and co-chair of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.
The committee held an emotional 10-hour hearing on the bill before voting last Thursday to endorse it.
“We didn’t open up access but we clarified what’s allowed,” Nutting said. And there will still be fewer bridges than 40 years ago, he said. “I think we’ve got everyone back to kind of center course again for now.”
Not according to opponents, who say the proposal does expand authorized access and is likely to land Allagash management back in court if passed by the full Legislature in the next few weeks.
STILL UNDEVELOPED AND WILD
The Allagash waterway flows through the heart of Maine’s North Woods, a seven- to-10-day paddle starting northeast of Baxter State Park and ending at the St. John River near the northern tip of the state. It is revered as a special resource nationwide, one of few major rivers still undeveloped and wild.
Maine voters established the 92-mile-long Allagash Wilderness Waterway in 1966. It became the first state-administered waterway under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1970 and is still “a barometer for all wild rivers across America,” Caverly said.
There were just two official access points to the waterway in 1970, reflecting the definition of a wild river as being free of impoundments and “generally inaccessible except by trail.”
Additional access points were gradually developed along the waterway, triggering periodic feuds about management that culminated with a lawsuit about a planned parking lot and canoe launch at John’s Bridge.
In 2003, the Baldacci administration appeared to settle the recurring fights.
Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan held a two-day retreat at the River Driver’s Restaurant in Millinocket. The meeting led to a broad agreement that ended the John’s Bridge dispute.
Frustration festered among locals, however, and Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, asked the Legislature this year to spell out and protect access at several sites that remained controversial. The bill would guarantee vehicle access to the river at Ramsay Campsite near Allagash and at Umsaskis Bridge. It also mandates the permanent replacement of Henderson Bridge, a temporary span used by logging trucks that conservationists say was illegal.
There would be a total of six places where users could drive motor vehicles to the river’s edge to launch boats, under the bill. Vehicle access is important, locals said, so they can use heavier motorized boats rather than canoes.
Conservationists say the bill would undo major compromises in the River Driver’s agreement, as well as previous agreements. The previous agreements said the Henderson Bridge was temporary and the access points would be studied, they said.
Maine’s 40-year-old Allagash law requires the state to maximize the river’s wilderness character, said Johnson of the Natural Resources Council. “This committee has gone in the opposite direction.”
Martin, the sponsor, said his bill doesn’t undo the 2003 compromise, but does restore balance to the waterway.
“This may tweak it a little. There’s no major changes,” Martin said. Martin said he hopes this bill will finally bring peace to the river management. Others fear the opposite will happen.
Jamie Fosburgh, a National Park Service manager who oversees scenic river management in the region, told the panel last week the Allagash has a strong reputation nationwide for its wilderness experience. Some of the changes, at least, would not jeopardize the river’s status, he predicted.
“You can preserve these traditions and you can have a wilderness experience at the same time,” Fosburgh said, but he didn’t endorse the changes, either. “I really thought, for me and for others, we had really put those issues to bed. . . . (The bill) seems like it could exacerbate some of the polarization.”