Members of a state commission gathered Friday in Orono to discuss replacing a heavily used bridge in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway that has lasted decades longer than planned, but is likely entering its last winter.
Constructed nearly 40 years ago, the roughly 200-foot long Henderson Brook Bridge was intended to be a temporary structure for logging trucks crossing the Allagash River just east of Round Pond.
Today the bridge is still a key trucking artery for timber companies that operate within northwestern Maine’s vast commercial forests, as well as a popular crossing spot for local residents and users of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
But 30-plus winters and the weight of more than 20,000 vehicles annually – including thousands of trucks loaded down with fresh-cut timber – have taken a serious toll on the wood and steel bridge. Despite repeated patching, parts of the bridge have sunk several inches and the pier system is apparently collapsing.
“If it gets through this winter, we’re lucky,” said Sen. John Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat who is one of about a dozen members of a commission charged with recommending bridge designs that balance economic, environmental and aesthetic interests.
Martin and the other commission members hope the Henderson Brook Bridge will last long enough to build a replacement.
The Legislature established the commission last winter as part of a fierce battle over vehicle access to the protected waterway.
But like seemingly every other management issue in the state-run Allagash waterway, replacing the bridge will not be an easy task.
The mere existence of bridges in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway angers some environmental and conservationist groups who believe federally designated “wild and scenic rivers” should be free of manmade structures. Such groups have fought past efforts to replace or build new bridges.
Nor will replacing the bridge be cheap. Estimates tossed around Friday ranged from $500,000 to $1 million.
Members of the commission toured the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center at the University of Maine Friday to see some of the latest bridge-building technology emerging from university research labs.
Habib Joseph Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Laboratory, demonstrated lightweight, carbon-fiber tubing that can be filled with concrete to make bridge arches as well as concrete pylons wrapped in composites for strength and additional protection.
Modern bridges can be partly constructed of wood or fitted with wood laminate or stone to maintain a rustic look that fits with the environment, he said.
Dagher said some of the technology, such as the carbon-fiber arches, may not be appropriate for a bridge on the Allagash because of the weight loads, ice conditions and aesthetic needs. But he expressed optimism that the center could contribute to the project.
Dagher also predicted that partnering with the center on an “innovative” bridge could help the group attract federal research dollars.
“We are here as a resource for the program … and we will work with you on the best ideas for that site,” he said.
The commission, which is expected to wrap up its work by mid-January, also will have to work through permitting and ownership issues. The state of Maine currently owns more than a 99 percent share of the bridge but has expressed interest in transferring ownership to the timber industry.
Commission members insist that a new bridge is certainly needed from an economic standpoint.
The organization North Maine Woods, which operates gates into the Allagash, estimates that 20,000 recreational visitors use Henderson Brook Bridge annually, generating $80,000 to $100,000 in revenue.
Anthony Hourihan, the regional manager for Irving Woodlands, said an estimated 3,300 commercial truckloads of timber – valued between $6 million and $7 million – cross Henderson Brook Bridge every year.
That figure does not include all of the loggers, managers and other timber-industry employees who drive across in other vehicles, he said.
Asked how losing the bridge would affect his industry, Hourihan replied: “It would probably put a lot of guys out of business up there.”
Representatives of environmental and conservation groups were notably absent from Friday’s commission meeting. Several groups have declined to send representatives to commission meetings held so far, said Department of Conservation spokesman Jim Crocker.