By Kevin Miller
Last spring, frustrated environmentalists predicted it was only a matter of time before the fight over access to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway ended up back in court.
It took about 10 months.
Two Maine residents filed suit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Bangor seeking to nullify a law passed by the Legislature last year that guarantees vehicle access points to the river and re-designates six bridges over the Allagash as permanent structures.
Charles Fitzgerald of Atkinson and Kenneth Cline of Bar Harbor contend that the controversial law, LD 2077, “creates areas of disruptive activity, congestion, noise and other problems” that conflict with the Allagash’s protected status within the federal “wild and scenic” river system.
The men argue that by passing the law, the Legislature violated the terms of Maine’s agreement with federal officials to forever maintain and operate the Allagash “in its wild condition to provide a wilderness canoe experience.” Finally, the plaintiffs claim LD 2077 violates constitutional prohibitions against states enacting laws that conflict with federal laws.
“It was time for the law to be tested,” Fitzgerald said in an interview Thursday.
The lawsuit names Willard Harris, director of the state Bureau of Parks and Lands, as a defendant because the BPL manages the waterway. Jim Crocker, spokesman for the Department of Conservation, which includes the BPL, declined to comment on the court filing.
“We haven’t seen the suit and we need to talk to legal counsel,” Crocker said.
Although unaware of the lawsuit before Thursday, state officials shouldn’t be entirely surprised that groups or individuals chose to challenge the new law.
Environmental and conservation groups fiercely fought LD 2077 because it wrote into law 11 vehicle access points along the wilderness waterway, which runs for 92 miles through northern Maine’s commercial forests.
Hard-core wilderness advocates argued that the Allagash’s designation as a wild and scenic river means limited access and few man-made structures, such as logging bridges. But St. John Valley residents lobbied hard for the bill on grounds that they had a right to access to the river for day use.
After weeks of hearings and several attempts at a compromise, the Legislature approved a bill that addressed many local residents’ access concerns. Some environmentalists and wilderness advocates immediately began talking about a court challenge, however.
Cline, a professor of environmental law and policy at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
But Fitzgerald, a prominent landowner and longtime Allagash user, said Thursday he believes the state has lost sight of the original intent of its agreement with the federal government. Passage of LD 2077 was the most “egregious” act, he said.
Under the federal wild and scenic program, the state should be making the river “wilder and wilder,” Fitzgerald said. “You don’t move to make it less wild with more access points and permanent bridges.”>/p>
But Rick Denico, an engineer who has been involved with Allagash issues for decades, accused the plaintiffs of misconstruing the voluntary agreement between the state and the federal government.
Rather than setting a maximum of two access points, at the beginning and the end as the plaintiff’s argue in their case, the agreement says there should be a minimum of two access points, Denico said.
Denico also pointed out that the National Park Service’s regional representative on the Wild and Scenic Rivers program, Jamie Fosburgh, told lawmakers last year that the existing access points and bridges were not a problem.
“They are twisting this voluntary agreement,” Denico said.
Of course, this isn’t the first time disagreement over the Allagash has gone to the courts.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine sued the state in 2000 over plans to build a parking lot and new boat launch near John’s Bridge between Churchill and Eagle lakes. The state prevailed in court but the access issue dragged on for several more years, arguably culminating in last year’s legislative fight.
Rep. Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat, said he was not concerned about the lawsuit. “I’m all for it. We’ll settle this once and for all,” Jackson said.