The Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Can you name another Maine wilderness waterway that has ignited so much controversy, or stirred up so much hard feeling? You would be hard-pressed to do so.

During the past few years, state government, which provoked most of the conflagration in the first place, has attempted to mediate. A few years ago, the Riverdrivers Agreement was supposed to resolve the dispute. It didn’t work. Outdoor folks in the County, according to retired Maine game warden Gary Pelletier, found themselves losing more and more traditional access to the Allagash River despite promises made.

In a second attempt to bridge the deep divisions between Aroostook County folks and the professional wilderness purists from the Augusta-Portland environmental cabal, the governor appointed a task force to study the problem and report back with recommendations.

The task force recommended a plan to create a waterway superintendent’s position and an advisory council.

The question, of course, is: Will this revised management framework do any good? Understandably, there are a lot of doubting Thomases among the County folks. SAM spokesman George Smith is trying to be positive, saying that it may help, but there are always going to be deep differences of opinion about what precisely constitutes the so-called “Allagash wilderness experience.”

The best solution may have nothing to do with the task force findings. Last year, with the help of state lawmaker John Martin, retired warden Gary Pelletier, and a number of concerned County outdoor folks, legislation passed that places the waterway access decisions squarely in the hands of the legislative process. It can be argued that this was an act of desperation and not a good way to manage outdoor parks and lands. This law’s passage was anything but a vote of confidence in Maine’s Conservation Department and its decision-making process.

Put yourself in the shoes of Gary Pelletier. You were born and brought up in Allagash country. You, your grandfather, your father, your brothers, and your uncle were all game wardens on this river. The river and its wilderness aura exists today in no small measure because of the professional dedication of resource protectors like the Pelletiers of Pelky Point. And the same state government that you worked for while protecting this country is now locking you out.

Gary tells this story. “One day, shortly before my dad died from cancer, we were out for a drive. We stopped at John’s Bridge (on the Allagash). Dad looked things over. He asked me why the big rocks had been placed near the boat launch. I explained that they were put there by the state to prevent people from launching their boats there. The big man’s shoulders dropped. He wilted, and said to me, ‘You mean I spent my whole life protecting this river, and now I can’t use it? ‘”

It is easy to appreciate Gary Pelletier’s disappointment with the state’s stewardship of the Allagash. The waterway has been his home. He and other County people feel like they have been locked out of their home by a state government funded by their own tax dollars. Pelletier will also tell you that he and other activists were deceived and misled by state officials during their dealings over the future of the Allagash Waterway.

The battle is not over, and in all aspects, it is symptomatic of the larger culture war that rages in Maine. An affluent state environmental activist, Charles Fitzgerald, is going to court in an attempt to stop the waterway access legislation passed last winter. If that suit prevails in court, all bets are off. Superintendent or no superintendent, advisory council or no advisory council, the Allagash’s political divide will surely open up like the San Andreas Fault.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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