by Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director
Good afternoon Sen. Nutting, Rep. Piotti and members of the Committee. My name is Cathy Johnson. I am here today on behalf of the 9000 members and supporters of the Natural Resources Council of Maine in opposition to L.D. 2077, An Act to Make Adjustments to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
I am very sad that we are all here today.
Back in 1999, the Bureau of Parks and Lands did a thorough review of its management plan. They held hearings that were attended by hundreds of people all of whom spoke passionately about their love for the Allagash.
Unfortunately, the plan that was adopted included a provision for a new parking lot, road and access point at John’s Bridge. This was a provision that then Commission Lovaglio included in the plan in spite of the recommendation against it by his staff at the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
Many people felt that this provision was a violation of the federal law designating the Allagash as a “wild” river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. That designation in the Federal Register refers to 2 motor vehicle access points to the river – at Telos and at West Twin Brook. As of the year 2000, there were already 13 additional motor vehicle access points on the river, in addition to the two originally authorized.
Many felt that this large number of motor vehicle access points violated the original Allagash law which calls for “developing the maximum wilderness character” of the Allagash.
What followed were several years of controversy regarding the proposed new access point at John’s Bridge – contentious LURC hearings and appeals to State court. The issue eventually ended up in the Maine Law Court. The Maine Attorney General’s Office spent hundreds of hours of lawyer staff time on this issue.
During this same time period, it came to light that the State had failed to obtain a required permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the reconstruction of Churchill Dam. A condition of obtaining such a permit was consultation with the National Park Service about the possible impacts of the project on the wild and scenic river.
In order to obtain an after-the-fact permit for the dam, the State of Maine entered into a formal “Memorandum of Agreement” (MOA) with the National Park Service. That agreement also was the subject of statewide public hearings, attended by hundreds of people, before it was signed in February of 2002.
In signing the MOA, the State agreed, to “develop recommendations for additions to the 1999 Management Plan on how the WSRA [Wild and Scenic Rivers Act] and federal guidelines on WSRA rivers should be interpreted and applied to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, specifically dams, bridges, and buildings and the type of and number of access points, with the understanding that a number of vehicle access points will remain and that access in some areas of the waterway will be less than 500 feet.”
Following the signing of the Agreement, the Department convened the Allagash Advisory Committee, on which I serve, for two overnight retreats at the Lodge at Bigelow where we tried to hammer out agreements on the issues relating to access to the river. We started all the way upstream and worked downstream. We came to agreement on two dozen motor vehicle, trail and water access points. We got as far downstream as Long Lake Dam.
Unfortunately, we were not able to come to agreement on John’s Bridge and the legal battles and controversy on that issue continued.
In January, 2003, the Baldacci Administration took office, thus inheriting the years of wrangling and controversy around the Allagash but also inheriting the binding Memorandum of Agreement.
In a new effort to complete its legal obligations under the Memorandum of Agreement and resolve the controversy surrounding motor vehicle access to the river, Commissioner McGowan hired a professional facilitator, Jonathan Reitman, and with his help, convened a new group of stakeholders to try to resolve the remaining issues.
This new group met at the River Driver’s Restaurant in Millinocket and spent two intense days trying to negotiate a conclusion to these controversies around access. I was there and I personally stayed up until midnight and met again over breakfast in an effort to find common ground.
And we did find common ground. Everybody got a little and gave a little. We reached an agreement, now dubbed the “River Drivers Agreement.” Was I thrilled about this agreement? No. Did it achieve the original vision of limited motor vehicle access to the river? No.
But was this agreement a reasonable compromise? I thought so, and so did the other 20 or so people who participated and signed the agreement.
And, in fact, we celebrated. We were all, I believe, happy to have left the controversy behind and be able to move forward to make the Allagash the best experience it could be. Gary Pelletier from Cross Lake held a barbeque at his house. In May, 2003, a big press conference was held at the State House where all those who had participated in the River Drivers Agreement came.
The Advisory Committee formally endorsed the River Drivers Agreement in May, and in September, members of the Advisory Committee took a celebratory four day trip on the Waterway. On that trip, I learned a lot about the history of the Waterway and the people who had worked along it from the folks from the north. The hospitality of our colleagues from Fort Kent area was overwhelming. We had great moose sightings and beautiful sunsets. We had informal discussions about the ongoing management challenges facing the Allagash.
And for the past three years, the Department, with the help of the Advisory Committee and various working groups and volunteers, has been working to implement the River Driver’s Agreement. Among other things:
Restoration of the Taylor camps has proceeded forward.
A campsite committee has worked on ways to enhance the wilderness character of the campsites.
The fisheries subcommittee has tackled issues around habitat and threats from invasive species.
The road which paralleled the river south of Ramsay Ledge has been closed.
Nonessential buildings were removed from the restricted zone.
The special day use sticker system allowing access for any purpose at John’s Bridge in May and September was put in place.
In addition, as required by the Memorandum of Agreement, the State began revising the Management Plan to address the remaining issues – dams, bridges and buildings. In March of 2004, the Advisory Committee reviewed the first draft of the changes. Extensive comments were made by many members of the Advisory Committee and the Department revised the draft plan. In June of 2005, the Advisory Committee reviewed the second draft. At that time the only comments were editorial and the Department scheduled public hearings.
Five public hearings were scheduled in November 2005. Because of requests for additional time, the comment period which had been scheduled to close in early December was extended to early March. Following an additional request, it was again extended until late April and a new series of public meetings was scheduled. I attended the first of these meetings this past Tuesday night in Fort Kent. At that hearing, nine people spoke. In addition to hearing comments during the formal part of the meeting, I had the opportunity to talk to a number of other folks informally before and after the meeting.
Two more meetings are scheduled in early April.
Finally, realizing that Henderson Brook Bridge, which was only intended to be a temporary bridge, as required by law, was in poor shape, the Advisory Committee had preliminary discussions about its future. Following those discussions, the Department appointed a small working group to look at options for the future of Henderson Brook Bridge, the only publicly owned bridge along the Waterway. A facilitator has been hired to help with those discussions. During this time, I also met with a representative of Irving Paper Company to discuss futures options for Henderson Brook Bridge. We discussed several alternative options; it was a very productive meeting.
All of this progress and good will is jeopardized by L.D. 2077. This bill would violate the commitments the State made when it signed the Memorandum of Agreement. It would change many of the provisions of the carefully negotiated River Driver’s Agreement, calling into question the utility of stakeholder groups of all types. By mandating a return to the 1999 plan, this bill invites a replay of the years of acrimony and lawsuits – to the detriment of the Allagash. And, last but not least, it would change the original Allagash Law in a fundamental way.
One issue that I have heard frequently from folks who live near the Waterway is their concern about loss of their history and heritage. Both the Memorandum of Agreement and the River Drivers Agreement set forth road maps for protecting and interpreting the human history of the region. Those provisions and others in the MOA and the RDA are what I hope we can spend our collective energies on in the next few years – not replaying the controversies of the past seven years.
Thousands and thousands of people from Allagash and Fort Kent to Kittery and Wells have paddled and love the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. I urge this Committee to vote Ought Not To Pass on this bill to allow all of these people to work together through the ongoing discussions and processes to continue to resolve these issues regarding the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.