By Kevin Miller
AUGUSTA – Gov. John Baldacci and members of a state panel on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway said Thursday they hope a set of recommended management changes will help settle long-standing disputes over the scenic river.
After more than seven months of work, members of the Allagash task force presented the governor with seven suggestions on improving waterway management.
The 92-mile waterway has been a point of contention since its inception 40 years ago. But tensions between environmental groups and local residents have flared anew in recent years over such issues as vehicle access points to and bridges over the federally recognized “Wild and Scenic” river.
The panel’s recommendations include elevating the status of the Allagash within the state Department of Conservation, creating a new waterway superintendent position and forming a seven-member advisory council. The group also proposed creating an endowment fund and adopting a mission statement to guide future management of the waterway.
Baldacci, who created the task force last June after a contentious legislative battle over the Allagash, praised the group’s work and echoed the report’s call for “a new beginning of careful listening, respectful communication and energetic collaboration” among interested parties.
Baldacci promised to review the recommendations but did embrace one proposal immediately.
The governor called the advisory council proposal “the center point of your report around which the other recommendations are built.” He plans to submit legislation codifying the council.
“I think we are going to end up with a model nationally,” the governor told group members during a formal presentation ceremony at the State House.
In an interview afterward, Baldacci said he would ask the advisory council — if approved by the Legislature — to review the other recommendations.
On the issue of a new waterway superintendent, Baldacci said someone in the Department of Conservation may have to “wear two hats, at least initially” due to the state’s limited financial resources.
The Allagash task force members met at least nine times and spent a day and a half on the river as they sought to craft recommendations likely to help the state resolve long-simmering issues.
The panel identified several serious and continuing problems that have contributed to political and management conflicts over the Allagash. Those problems include loss of public confidence in management, inadequate or nonexistent long-range planning, and treatment of the Allagash as just another state park.
But before any progress can be made, the different interest groups must be willing to sit down, to talk and to listen to each other, the panel wrote in its report.
“The working group is persuaded that no recommendations for improvement of the waterway and diminution of the conflicts surrounding it will be effective in the absence of a return to the civility and respectful discourse that characterized the early years of the waterway’s formulation and development, despite sharp differences of opinion at the time,” the report reads.
Don Nicoll, chairman of the group, said Thursday that debate over use of the waterway is not going to dissipate any time soon. Instead of seeking an end to debate, the debate must become more constructive, Nicoll said.
The panel did not wade into the controversial issues of defining “wilderness” or the appropriate number of access points to the river.
The panel had originally proposed the creation of a three-member “board of overseers” for the Allagash similar to the Baxter State Park Authority. But the group dropped the proposal in response to overwhelmingly negative feedback from people on all sides of the issue.
One member of the panel — Brownie Carson, the executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine — opposed dropping the board of overseers proposal.
Last week, two Maine residents filed suit in U.S. District Court in Bangor to invalidate a law passed last year guaranteeing 11 vehicle access points to the Allagash. The plaintiffs — Charles Fitzgerald of Atkinson and Kenneth Cline of Bar Harbor — claim the law violates the state’s agreement with the federal government to manage the Allagash as a wild and scenic river.
When asked about the lawsuit, both Baldacci and Nicoll had the same reaction.
“I think it underscores the fact that this is needed,” Nicoll said, referring to the group’s recommendations.