AUGUSTA – Hours before sunrise Friday, Colleen McBreairty and three family members got into a car and began the nearly six-hour drive from Allagash to Augusta to deliver a message.
“The Allagash River is not someone else’s playground, it is our heritage,” McBreairty told a committee of lawmakers considering a bill on access to the protected waterway.
In the seats behind McBreairty were dozens more people – many wearing bright-yellow “Friends of the Allagash” hats – who had traveled by bus from Maine’s northernmost reaches to voice similar criticism of proposed changes to the river’s management plan.
And then there were people like Dr. Paul Liebow, a Bucksport resident who said his fond memories of paddling through the Allagash “wilderness” were a source of constant joy. Liebow and more than a dozen like-minded speakers urged the committee not to approve a bill they fear could weaken conservation efforts on the river and further politicize the issue.
“It is just plain wrong to undo the present Allagash plan so that a select few who happen to live close by can use it as their own personal park,” Liebow said.
Three years after negotiating a hard-fought compromise on the Allagash, many of the same players again are slugging it out over such issues as vehicle access points to the river, snowmobiling in the waterway and the future of a heavily trafficked bridge.
Aspects of the feud have been going on for decades. The incarnation before the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry essentially would give the Legislature more say in management of the waterway.
The core struggle – between local residents concerned about loss of “traditional uses” and groups hoping to protect the river’s wild character – will be painfully familiar to the committee. On Thursday night, members wrapped up three weeks of grueling work to craft a compromise on the Katahdin Lake controversy that featured similar themes.
The bill by Sen. John Martin would require the Bureau of Parks and Lands to reopen river access at Ramsay Ledges and Cunliffe campsites as well as Umsaskis Lake and Bissonette.
More controversial, the bill would require that the bureau receive legislative approval for any changes it makes to the 1999 version of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway Management Plan. The bill essentially would nullify a 2003 agreement named for the Millinocket restaurant where negotiations between parties were held.
Gary Pelletier, a former game warden with roots to the Allagash dating back generations, said the River Drivers Agreement that he signed is not the one that the bureau is working from now to develop a new management plan.
In a lengthy presentation, Pelletier gave the committee copies of documents that he said show that access at Umsaskis and other items now in the management plan were never part of the discussion in Millinocket. Local residents once again were left out, he said.
He said he withdrew his support for the agreement because it had been altered and “tainted” by state officials and conservation groups to limit local residents’s access to the river.
“Give us back our freedom to access the Allagash,” Pelletier said.
Rep. Troy Jackson, a Fort Kent Democrat who is the son of McBreairty, said he feels as if he and other local residents who want to camp, picnic or paddle the river for the day are regarded as “eyesores” by those seeking a wilderness experience on the river. He said that, unlike some visitors, many locals cannot afford to take a week off to paddle the waterway.
But bill opponents disputed Pelletier’s and others’s recollections of the River Drivers meetings. They said that Umsaskis was discussed and that the issues around the Ramsay Ledges and Cunliffe campsites were resolved.
Dean Bennett, author of two books on the waterway who served on the Allagash Advisory Council, said River Drivers participants thought it would be impossible to agree on issues surrounding the Allagash given the years of controversy.
“Yet, consensus was achieved and a great majority of participants still stand behind the agreement they signed at that time,” said Bennett, who lives in Mount Vernon. “This bill, if passed, will break that agreement.”
Department of Conservation officials said they are working to address most of the concerns contained in the bill. Dave Soucy, director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, also said the department has no intention of closing access points, removing bridges or banning small outboard motors on canoes.
The department has two additional public hearings planned on the proposed changes to the management plan.