An editorial that appeared in these pages not many weeks ago suggested that the conflict around management of the Allagash will never subside until Maine’s political leadership screws up enough political courage to abide by the governing statutes for the waterway and enforce management policies that in fact “preserve, protect, and develop the maximum wilderness character” of the Allagash.
True enough, but the Allagash Wilderness Waterway has more to contend with than inadequate funding, the neglect by one administration after another of the state’s obligation to maintain and enhance the waterway’s wilderness character, and, now, the Legislature’s caving in to political pressure for permanent motorized access points.
More damaging to the Allagash than all these failings is the road system that has grown up around it over the last several decades, some 30,000 miles of roads not only surrounding the waterway but also reaching into just about every corner and cranny of the north woods. The mile-wide buffer zone that was supposed to shield the immediate river corridor from the excesses of industrial wood extraction has been honored primarily in the breach, allowing logging operations to reach the edge of the waterway’s restricted zone, which varies in width from 800 feet to as little as 400 feet.
Right behind the skidders, feller-bunchers, and whole-tree harvesters hauled into the woods on those wide, gravel highways came the recreational machinery: four-wheel-drive cars and trucks, ATVs, and snowmobiles. The close proximity of roads to the waterway is a standing invitation to punch in a wildcat entry point here, another one there.
And, indeed, where sometimes only a beauty strip of a few hundred feet separates the river from a clearcut, riding a snowmobile through those few hundred feet hardly seems like a violation of the wilderness. To maintain the wilderness character of this narrow ribbon of land and water exposed along much of its length to both working and recreational traffic is a tall order, even with adequate resolve and the funding and staff to back it up. Without those assets, the erosion of wilderness character is all but assured.
But it is not, of course, just the Allagash that has become so vulnerable because of those 30,000 miles of roads. The existing road network not only invites ever increasing motorized use throughout the north woods but also smoothes the way for huge residential and recreational development schemes like Plum Creek’s plan for the Moosehead region and industrial developments like windpower installations, mining operations and future uses we can’t even envision now.
What the example of the Allagash does make clear, however, is that if any blocks of land in Maine are going to be managed for wilderness character, they have to be large; they have to be unroaded; and they have to be buffered. If defending the wilderness character of the Allagash calls for some political courage, then creating still larger wilderness reserves will call for considerably more courage because the only way to achieve that goal is through large public ownership, and the only entity capable of purchasing and managing blocks of land large enough to protect wilderness character is the federal government.
At the very mention of the Feds, of course, the cries of horror go up.
But what are the alternatives? Should the Maine woods, which are a national treasure worthy of national protection, continue to be free game for market forces? Over the last ten to fifteen years, as huge parcels of land have changed hands multiple times, the land purchases and the conservation easements negotiated by both state agencies and private conservation organizations have made great gains for land conservation in the north woods. But substantial as these efforts have been, they remain piecemeal, and the acreage devoted to wilderness is proportionately small.
We in Maine have set our sights way too low.
We need a comprehensive vision for the north woods, one that foresees extensive wilderness areas closed to logging and any motorized traffic and buffered by sustainably managed timberlands that are beautiful and biologically diverse and that do allow motorized access. Nothing short of a federal ownership of a few million acres is likely to realize that vision. What the makeup of that ownership should be — whether park and preserve, a federal wilderness within a national forest or preserve, or some entirely new combination of options — will have to be and should be determined by a full and open public discussion. It’s past high time that discussion took place.