When environmentalists and residents of northern Maine agree on anything related to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, it is a momentous occasion. That’s why proposals, which are the same in principle but differ in detail, to create a commission to oversee and make management decisions for the waterway offer a positive way out of the years of wrangling over the Allagash.
The proposals, currently being considered by a working group set up by the governor to find new ways to manage the 92-mile long river, range from a trust modeled on the Baxter Park Authority to a board of governors with members appointed by lawmakers. While members of the working group have yet to decide on a specific makeup, the new body must have an odd number of members that are not seen as representing specific constituencies.
In all the proposals, the Department of Conservation would run the waterway in accordance with the oversight group’s management decisions. They also include an advisory committee as a forum for input on waterway management.
Interestingly, the proposals all say committee members should be chosen for their expertise and knowledge, not to represent a specific group. A past advisory committee tried to balance wilderness advocates against the interests of timber companies and Allagash area residents. Many meetings were spent arguing without nearing agreement. That group’s significant accomplishment, an agreement on access and management, ultimately collapsed.
The new approach removes the Department of Conservation, and hence the governor, as the scapegoat for unpopular decisions on the Allagash. In recent years, the department has been increasingly criticized by sportsmen and northern Maine residents for restricting access and catering to wilderness advocates.
The access restrictions were put in place after a diverse group, including representatives of sportsmen’s groups and several St. John Valley residents, signed the “River Drivers Agreement,” stipulating which roads, bridges and put-ins would remain open.
On July 4, Sen. Martin and Rep. Troy Jackson, both of whom signed the agreement saying the Old Michaud Farm Road would be closed, used a bulldozer to reopen the road near the northern end of the waterway.
Though Sen. Martin later apologized for that dramatic step, this is no way to run the federally designated wild and scenic river.
An independent oversight body provides a new avenue for calming the rancor. One of its first tasks should be to use the River Drivers Agreement as a framework to write a final, detailed list of access points and bridges that should then be written into statute. That won’t be easy.
But it would end one long, negative chapter in the Allagash’s history.