By Dean and Sheila Bennett
On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, it is important to recognize and appreciate what the voters of Maine did in November 1966 when they approved a bond issue to develop the maximum wilderness character of the land along the Allagash River and its headwater lakes.
It is equally important, however, to recognize an opportunity to honor the obligation made by the voters 40 years ago.
Much progress has been made toward the goal of maximizing the wilderness character of this extraordinary waterway. However, after four decades the fate of the Allagash is in jeopardy as a result of acts that undermine that character. For instance, a recent change in the law locks in excessive motorized access points. A new bridge is being planned. Roads have been cleared without state authorization. Thus, it is up to us to decide whether the Allagash will remain a wild river of national prominence.
As a result of the 1996 vote, Maine has a unique watercourse with an undeveloped, natural shoreline stretching northward almost 100 miles nearly to its confluence with the St. John River. Here there are places where you can still capture the essence of the great North Woods and experience the feeling of an earlier, more primitive time.
At the southern end of the waterway, visitors can take in spectacular views of Mount Katahdin and follow Henry David Thoreau’s 19th-century canoe route to Pillsbury Island on Eagle Lake, or continue to paddle north with the flow of the river to marvel at Allagash Falls.
Listen to the quiet! Only an occasional loon call or the chattering of terns may interrupt the silence. Native brook trout entice anglers, while moose, deer, otters, eagles and osprey attract wildlife observers. Few wild rivers can match the natural diversity of the Allagash.
We are ever grateful to those who had the foresight to recognize the value of this outstanding river area to provide us with places for solitude and opportunities to observe the natural world. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, Elmer Violette, Robert Patterson and Clinton Townsend are just a few of those to whom we are indebted.
Though the unbroken natural shoreline and quiet backwaters speak of harmony, the Allagash has been surrounded by much controversy that is more reminiscent of the chaotic rush of water at Chase Rapids and Allagash Falls. After the initial effort to develop maximum wilderness character in a watercourse known for its logging history, there have been incremental incursions in the narrow strip preserved for wilderness character and a weakening of resolve to hold true to the intention of the voters in 1966.
There are those who undermine the protection by insisting on easy drive-up access to the water, by making temporary bridges permanent, by resisting building removals, and by opening roads in the narrow corridor of woods that contribute to the Allagash’s wild character. Given the various special interests seeking changes in the management of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, it becomes increasingly difficult to honor the voters’s intention.
Now, 40 years later, a gubernatorial Working Group is charged with recommending a management structure for the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The area is managed now by the Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.
On behalf of the Allagash Alliance, Maine Audubon, The Maine Chapter of the Isaac Walton League, Maine PEER, The Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, The Maine Council of Trout Unlimited, The Maine Wilderness Guides Organization, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, RESTORE: The North Woods and The Wilderness Society, we encourage the Working Group to recommend the creation of an authority isolated from political pressure and composed of proven decision-makers who will focus on developing the area’s wilderness character. It is imperative to create a management structure that will have as its highest priority the commitment made by Maine voters 40 years ago.
If there is anything we have learned over the last four decades, it is that we must be ever vigilant to preserve what we once thought we had saved.