The efforts to preserve the Allagash began early and have lasted for years. In July 1961, the federal government proposed an Allagash National Riverway and the establishment of a 300,000-acre recreation area.
Because of the committee’s efforts, 68 percent of Maine voters approved, in 1966, a referendum for a $1.5 million bond issue. When passed, the Federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation matched the amount. This vote marked citizens’ approval for the establishment of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, an area where there is to be development of “maximum wilderness character.”
But the creation of Maine’s now treasured wilderness experience did not come easy or without debate.
One dispute was over a dam that would have flooded 97 percent of the river. A byproduct of the Passamaquoddy Tidal Project, the Rankin Rapids impoundment on the St. John River, was proposed to supplement the tidal plan. If built, the dam would have flooded upstream from Allagash Village to Eagle Lake.
Thankfully the efforts to build the dam failed and bids to protect the area continued. In a dedication ceremony on July 19, 1970, Sen. Ed Muskie proclaimed the inclusion of the Allagash into the National Park Service’s Wild and Scenic River System — the first such state-administered wild river in the U.S.
Today we have a state-managed wilderness area that people from all over world come to visit. But is the state’s administration of the waterway perfect?
In retrospect, the corridor may have been better preserved under federal control — perhaps a federal canoe route wouldn’t have been so susceptible to local whims. (Since 1966 Maine legislators have introduced more than 40 separate pieces of legislation to address a variety of agendas and enacted several of them.)
But, despite all of the challenges, the waterway experience works. It works because of the many who care for the natural experience found between “the banks.”
I expect there will always be challenges to keeping our natural areas in perpetuity. When it comes to money, there are many who would exploit for profit without consideration, it seems, for the economic benefit that many communities enjoy from neighboring national recreational areas.
I was ranger supervisor of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in 1991, when the waterway’s 25th birthday was celebrated at Churchill Dam. At the time, the director of the Bureau of Parks rededicated the state efforts to manage the Allagash as a wild river.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the waterway and the 100th of the National Park Service and the protection of Acadia National Park.
As our nation celebrates the prudence that conserved our natural treasures, treat yourself. Explore our great Acadia, paddle the fabulous Allagash and sing “Happy Birthday” to both. Your life will be changed for the better.
Tim Caverly is a retired supervisor for the Maine Department of Conservation and a Maine author who has published six books. He travels throughout New England sharing his stories about the north woods. More information about Allagash Tails can be found at allagashtails.com.