AUGUSTA – Lawmakers hoping to avoid another protracted cultural war over the Allagash Wilderness Waterway have reworked a bill to guarantee several sites to access and cross the protected area.
Members of a legislative committee are expected to vote today on a draft of a bill that, if enacted, would represent a significant victory for northern Maine residents critical of state management of the Allagash.
State officials and representatives of environmental groups expressed concern, however, that the proposed changes could hamstring management of the river and violate the spirit of Maine’s attempts to meet federal definitions of a “wild” river for outdoor recreation.
Lawmakers crafted the compromise just five days after holding a marathon public hearing that illustrated lingering tensions between St. John Valley residents, the state and conservation groups over the Allagash.
Eagle Lake Sen. John Martin, a Democrat, introduced legislation, LD 2077, to force the state to reopen several sites along the Allagash to vehicles and to guarantee a bridge over Henderson Brook. Martin and local residents charge that the state is restricting access points to discourage day use of the river.
Martin’s bill also requires the Department of Conservation to receive legislative approval for changes now under consideration for the river’s plan – a controversial proposal that critics contend would further politicize an already heated issue. Last, the measure would effectively nullify a now-controversial agreement brokered among all parties in 2003.
The revised bill, which appears to have significant support among committee members, would guarantee that local residents could drive to the river’s edge to launch canoes from six sites: Chamberlain Thoroughfare, Churchill Dam, Umsaskis Lake, Henderson Brook, Michaud Farm and Twin Brooks.
The draft also would guarantee that river-goers could drive to short trails leading to the river at John’s Bridge, Bissonette Bridge, Finley Bogan, the Ramsey Ledge campsite and Indian Stream.
The draft of LD 2077 would mandate that a bridge be maintained permanently at Henderson Brook. The existing bridge, which representatives of the forest products industry say is critical to timber operations in the St. John Valley, is designated a “temporary” structure despite being erected nearly 40 years ago.
Committee co-chairman Sen. John Nutting, a Leeds Democrat, said he hopes the committee’s work will resolve some of the long-standing battles over the Allagash.
“I think we have a very, very strong report here,” Nutting said.
Several committee members were clearly uneasy about subjecting the department’s management plans to legislative approval. However, Martin urged the committee to at least review changes under way to comfort local residents distrustful of the state. The committee likely will revisit the issue today.
The revisions also drop language that essentially would have ignored the so-called “River Drivers Agreement” negotiated in 2003.
Martin said he was pleased with the committee’s work. “Obviously, it’s not everything I had in the bill, but I think it is something that is going to help solve this” issue, Martin said.
Patrick McGowan, commissioner of the Department of Conservation, said that although he has not seen the bill’s final language, he remains concerned that the Legislature could undermine past negotiations on the Allagash. He said the department would welcome clarification on the bridge issue, however.
“I’m disappointed by what’s going on,” McGowan said. “But the Legislature is our board of directors. We have to listen to them.”>/p>
Cathy Johnson with the Natural Resources Council of Maine said she sees possible legal issues within the current draft.
For instance, the original language of the agreement creating the Allagash Wilderness Waterway states that no new permanent structures should be built on the river. The draft, however, calls for a study committee to look into replacing the temporary Henderson Brook bridge with a new, permanent bridge.
Johnson said there is also legal disagreement over allowing vehicle access points to what is supposed to be a “wild and scenic” river.