PHILLIPS — The High Peaks Alliance launched its first of several discussion forums Wednesday evening to introduce the concept of a national wildlife refuge based in northwestern Franklin County.
The nonprofit organization’s mission has been the creation and retention of traditional-use access for hunters, hikers, guides, snowmobilers and ATV riders.
The evening gathering, sponsored by the Sandy River Business Association, shared some of the group’s successes in supporting landowner cooperation, access easements and conflict resolutions. When a landowner subdivides and sells a single-piece property with a single trail, future recreational users must get permission to access each property to continue to use that trail. Property owners have the right to refuse access, said forum organizer Chris Beach, but the Alliance has worked hard to bring those recreational users and landowners to the table.
The creation of the Moose Loop ATV trail from Strong to Oquossoc is a product of many months of such effort. A national wildlife refuge in the area between Sugarloaf and Saddleback Mountain could be another way to keep some of the area’s land available for recreational use. That area also includes Mt. Abram, a traditional destination for hunters, snowmobilers and ATVers.
“National wildlife refuges provide protection for fish and wildlife habitats, but they also can provide opportunities for hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing,” Beach said. “Trails for public access are usually part of the mix.”
Speakers included Paul Casey, manager of the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, and Deputy Refuge Manager Ian Drew. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees 560 national wildlife refuges, and six of them are in Maine.
The national application process is competitive, and the High Peaks Alliance must demonstrate substantial public support. Although the Western Maine refuge area could include up to 25,000 acres, that parcel is not as large as it might seem, according to a local guide.
“This is less than 3 percent of the size of Franklin County,” Roger Lambert told the audience. “We have nothing up here right now, so this is a real opportunity for us.”
The region has had few opportunities to revitalize its economy after all of the wood mills closed. Sugarloaf employs 890 people during the winter months, according to Franklin County Commissioner Clyde Barker. Residents have organized business groups to seek alternatives for employment, and tourism has been a constant theme. The organization’s next forum will be March 20 in Rangeley.
Future presentations and panel discussion will provide ample opportunity for audience questions. Visit www.highpeaksalliance.org for more information.
Further support for the series is being provided by Western Mountains Alliance. Its website is www.westernmountainsalliance.org.