Attempting to avoid being dragged deeper into a decades-old feud, Gov. John Baldacci declined Wednesday to sign a controversial bill regarding the Allagash River and instead created a task force to recommend new ways to manage the waterway.
Baldacci’s decision to not endorse the bill was largely symbolic and will not affect the measure’s fate. Under a clause in the Maine Constitution, a bill passed by a sitting Legislature automatically becomes law unless the governor vetoes it within 10 days.
But Baldacci administration staffers said the governor did not want to appear as if he was taking sides on the bill, which pitted conservationists against northern Maine residents in a rehashing of debate over access to the river.
Instead, the governor hopes to resolve some of the perennial issues surrounding the Allagash by exploring new management options for the waterway, which is part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system.
“The hope is we can come up with some ideas that would meet the acceptance of people on all sides of the issue,” said Richard Davies, Baldacci’s senior policy adviser.
Baldacci has turned to longtime Allagash user Don Nicoll to lead the group. Nicoll was chief of staff to Sen. Edmund Muskie, who was instrumental in the creation of the wilderness waterway.
One option the governor hopes the group will consider, Davies said, is creation of a public body charged exclusively with managing the waterway.
That potentially would remove the Department of Conservation from the picture. The department, which oversees all state parks, has become a popular target for critics of the state’s management of the river.
Davies said the hypothetical group could be similar – at least in spirit – to the Baxter State Park Authority or the Maine State Housing Authority, which operate with limited involvement of the Legislature.
The Allagash authority then could settle disputes without extensive involvement from Augusta or the Legislature.
“The thought is we can create some entity whose only focus is going to be managing the waterway,” Davies said. “By having some sort of independent and single focus, it may be better able to operate” the waterway.
Davies stressed that an Allagash authority is only one option and that the governor will consider any recommendations generated by the task force.
An official in the Department of Conservation said the agency will be “very supportive” of the task force’s efforts, even if it means that the Allagash will be managed by another state agency.
Karin Tilberg, deputy commissioner in the DOC, said the Allagash consumes a disproportionate share of the department’s resources compared with other state parks because of the continuing struggle. At the same time, the park receives high satisfaction ratings from users, she said.
“Sometimes you have to look under a lot of stones to find a solution, and we are hopeful that a creative, thoughtful look at a variety of plans might create some good options,” Tilberg said.
Baldacci has been under intense pressure lately to either sign or veto the legislation.
Supporters view the bill, LD 2077, as an appropriate check on a state bureaucracy they are convinced is eliminating vehicle access points to limit usage of the river by locals. Opponents, meanwhile, said the bill undermines years of negotiations between parties and potentially violates the spirit of the Allagash’s designation as a wilderness waterway.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said he told Baldacci that he did not care if the governor signed the measure as long as it became law. Martin also said he supported the task force and had discussed the idea with Brownie Carson, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, as a way to “bring peace” to the river.
Representatives of groups on both sides of the issue indicated support for re-examining management of the Allagash.
Jym St. Pierre, who is Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods, said members of the group Citizens to Protect the Allagash have advocated for an independent management authority for a number of years.
“In concept, I think it’s a good idea to be looking at other ways to manage the Allagash and to set it up where it can have more independence,” St. Pierre said.
The task force does not, however, change the Allagash group’s strong opposition to the bill, he said. St. Pierre said the group will meet soon to discuss possible responses to LD 2077, including new legislation, a lawsuit or a referendum campaign.
Gary Pelletier, a retired game warden who became one of the unofficial spokesmen for the bill’s backers from the Allagash region, said he was disappointed Baldacci did not sign the measure. But Pelletier also liked the idea of a task force to examine different management options.
Pelletier said he too is optimistic that the different sides will be able to work together, despite the most recent heated skirmish over the river.
“If the governor wants us to go forward with this, we shouldn’t go into the room bickering about the small stuff. We should go in broad-minded,” he said.