BANGOR – The state has failed to adequately protect the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, a group of guides, environmentalists and river users said Thursday in announcing they are suing over a new access point on the federally designated wild and scenic waterway.
The groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Allagash Alliance and the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, filed suit Thursday in Kennebec County Superior Court in Augusta against the Land Use Regulation Commission for approving an application for a hand-carry boat launch at John’s Bridge.
After initially asking its staff to draft a denial of the boat launch request in August, the commission in November approved the application from the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands to build a parking lot, trail and boat launch at the controversial bridge on the 92-mile long waterway. That vote was 4-3.
Environmental groups and many outfitters argued against the proposed boat launch because they thought it would further degrade the wilderness character of the waterway. Fishermen and sportsmen supported the project because it would allow easier access for people wanting to use the Allagash for day trips.
The bridge, which runs between Churchill and Eagle lakes about 50 miles west of Ashland, has become a focal point in the controversy over how the Allagash should be managed. It has been illegal to launch boats at the bridge, which is on a logging road owned by Seven Islands Land Co., since 1987, but people put in there anyway. A management plan for the Allagash, approved in 1998 by the Department of Conservation calls for an official access point there.
“The ill-conceived boat launch at John’s Bridge violates the very purpose for which the Allagash Wilderness Waterway was established,” the NRCM’s Cathy Johnson said at a press conference at the Bangor Public Library.
The groups’ lawsuit alleges that in granting the application LURC violated its own rules for protecting remote areas of the state and did not adequately consider whether alternative places to access the river were located nearby. Two boat launches where people can back their boats into the water with motorized vehicles are about 15 miles away from John’s Bridge.
John Williams, the director of LURC, said Thursday that his agency did follow its guidelines for regulating development in the state’s Unorganized Territories when evaluating the boat launch application, a process that included two days of public hearings in Bangor and Presque Isle.
He said the commission considered whether a new launch would negatively impact traditional uses, namely fishing and canoeing. The majority of commission members said there would be no negative impact and that maybe there would be a positive effect because use would be more spread out with an additional place to get in the waterway.
The commission also spent time considering whether there was a reasonable alternative. Four members said that existing access points at Churchill and Chamberlain lakes were too far away.
Williams said he is comfortable with the commission’s conclusions.
Commissioner of the Department of Conservation Ron Lovaglio, who oversees both the Bureau of Parks and Lands, which applied for a permit to built the launch, and LURC, which granted the permit, stood by the decision Thursday.
“I think the right thing has been done,” he said. His agency is charged with listening to various sides of an issue and making a decision. With three BPL public hearings and three LURC meetings on the application, he said no other issue on the Allagash has gotten so much attention as John’s Bridge.
As for charges that his agency has not adequately protected the waterway, Lovaglio said there have been no significant changes on the Allagash during the current administration, except the reconstruction of a dam on Churchill Lake, a project that was overwhelmingly supported by Maine voters.
He said his agency should be praised for completing a management plan for the Allagash, the first one in the waterway’s more than 30 years of existence.
“I’m confident … the plan will protect the Allagash for a long time,” Lovaglio said.
The chairman of LURC, however, said he welcomed the suit.
“I’m pleased to see it,” said Stephen Wight, who owns a cross country ski center in Newry.
Wight was one of three commission members to oppose the boat launch application in November because he said the Allagash is “something special.” Because of his position on John’s Bridge, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine has threatened to fight Wight’s nomination to serve another term on the board.
Wight said he had expected the issue to end up in court no matter which way the commission voted. He said the issue needs to be argued in court because there are a number of considerations, such as whether the new launch is truly needed and whether it will affect natural resources and other waterway uses that are hard to quantify and are deserving of further discussion.
Those who filed the suit reiterated their concern that the waterway was being degraded.
“Turning the Allagash into ‘Saco River North’ by providing more and easier access will destroy [the] remote experience forever, and enterprises such as ours will be forced to move to Canada or go out of business,” said Warren Cochrane of Allagash Canoe Trips, a Greenville outfitter.
In an interview, he said clients still ask to canoe the Allagash, but he worries that that will end because many times the experience is not what they expected. Cochrane said his son has been threatened by drunken men in motorized canoes while leading trips on the waterway.
“There are hundreds of lakes, ponds, streams and rivers in Maine that are easily accessible for day users, but only one Allagash Wilderness Waterway,” Cochrane said.
The Hurricane Island Outward Bound School has already begun moving some of its trips to Canada because the Allagash is not remote enough, said Landon Fake, the school’s director of programs. Last year, 10 students participated in canoe trips in Quebec. Next year, he anticipates that 30 will.
“The Allagash is the only long river corridor in Maine where a remote experience is possible,” he said, adding that thisdraws people from across the nation. “It would be a shame for the Allagash to lose that national appeal.” Meanwhile, Commissioner Lovaglio said Thursday that construction could begin any time: “We have a permit.”