April 07, 2020

Panel narrows options for managing waterway

AUGUSTA – Members of a state task force on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway expressed strong support Wednesday for creating an independent advisory board to oversee policy issues and resolve long-standing flash points among river users.

Panel members have yet to resolve, however, just how much independence to give the board and whether the state’s Department of Conservation should continue to manage the popular, 92-mile-long recreational waterway.

After nearly four months of discussion, members of the Allagash work group appear to be nearing consensus on a management structure that balances protecting the waterway’s natural beauty while respecting the needs and desires of local residents and the timber industry.

Gov. John Baldacci created the working group earlier this year after interest groups slugged it out in the Legislature over the number of vehicle access points to waterway. Conservationists want fewer access points to encourage multiple-day trips and to maintain a feeling of wilderness. Local residents who want to make day-trips to the river accuse conservationists of discrimination.

Work group members presented two possible management options Wednesday for the waterway.

Brownie Carson, the executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, proposed the creation of a largely autonomous Allagash Wilderness Waterway Trust to make all management decisions in the waterway. The trust would be similar but not identical to the three-member authority that runs Baxter State Park.

The independent trust would have four members: the commissioner of the Department of Conservation, the state attorney general, either the head of the Muskie School of Public Service or the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, and the regional director of the National Park Service. The latter position would be nonvoting.

Carson also proposed the creation of a dedicated endowment for the Allagash, perhaps started with a $15 million bond. An eight-member advisory council could also provide input to the trustees, Carson said.

The second management proposal, offered by former conservation commissioner Richard Barringer, called for leaving the Allagash under the purview of the Department of Conservation but creating an eight-member “board of governors.”

The Department of Conservation would still handle day-to-day administration of the waterway. But the board would establish rules, create long-range strategic plans, hear public comment and accept money for the waterway. Barringer also proposed giving the board an executive director.

“It’s fair to say … that there isn’t much that is broken in the Allagash that can’t be fixed by people with good will and effective planning and more resources,” Barringer said.

Several members of the panel expressed concern about how Carson’s independent, four-person trust would go over with legislators and the general public. They also raised questions about whether state bond money could legally be used for the waterway.

Sen. John Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat who often represents the interests of St. John Valley residents on Allagash issues, said he was leaning toward a board or advisory group composed of somewhere between four and eight members.

Don Hudson, president of the Chewonki Foundation, said one of the most important things would be making sure any management body is composed of a broad range of representatives with expertise in the area who clearly understand their charge.

The panel is expected to fine-tune the proposals during the coming weeks before releasing a recommendation in late November. The panel will then hold a public hearing, currently slated for Nov. 28, to hear citizens’ comments on the proposal.

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