High Peaks National Wildlife Refuge Focus Area Overview

COUNTY — A decision announced Tuesday, Dec. 26, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [USFWS] to pause its plan to designate part of the High Peaks region in western Maine as a national wildlife refuge has been met with favor by some.

The federal government had been considering making between 5,000 and 15,000 acres in the High Peaks into a refuge since the spring. In May, USFWS held listening sessions in Rangeley and Farmington on the proposal. Sessions were held in Carrabassett Valley and at Sugarloaf ski resort in June.

“Obviously I’m very pleased with the decision,” former state Senator Tom Saviello of Wilton, told The Franklin Journal Wednesday morning. “I think both Congressman Golden and Senator King listened very carefully to what our concerns were.”

In August, U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and Rep. Jared Golden sent a letter to USFWS outlining their concerns about the plan for the refuge, citing local opposition as well.

At the Sept. 26 Farmington Select Board meeting, Saviello and resident James Cote [who is a representative for several Maine recreational organizations] spoke against the project. At that meeting, Cote said he, Franklin County Commissioner Bob Carlton of Freeman Township, Saviello and others got together to discuss the proposal.

“We are all believers in conservation,” he said then. “We have all worked on conservation efforts at the State House, here in Franklin County and elsewhere. Obviously that place is a gem of a natural resource and we all want to see that protected.”


The group is not opposed to conservation, Cote told the Farmington board. “The problem, the concern that many of us have is when you inject sort of sweeping federal ownership into a working forest, into areas that are seeking to grow, whether that’s ski mountains or anywhere else, it becomes problematic. It only takes a simple Google search to be able to see the amount of litigation that gets tied up with these national wildlife refuges, the amount of recreational access that gets altered over time.”

“Avon, Phillips, Strong, Kingfield, Stratton, Rangeley and Wilton have already voted against this,” Saviello said at that meeting. Farmington Selectmen agreed to write a letter opposing the refuge.

“When people think sometimes their voice doesn’t matter, here’s a case where their voice was huge,” Saviello said Wednesday. “As I told both Angus King and Jared Golden, “we need to give you guys the proof to go forward to say no.” And we did and they went forward and fought the battle for us. The result is [USFWS] is postponing this.”

Saviello said he laughed when hearing the news because USFWS came about 10 years ago with a similar plan. He supported it at first, thinking it could bring revenue to the area.

He changed his mind after Steve Philbrick, former owner of Bald Mountain Camps in Rangeley, told him, “When they get here, they promise you everything. Then 10-15 years later they change everything.”

[USFWS] promises snowmobiling, then they find out the wooly mammoth lived in Stratton and all the land around there you can’t snowmobile anymore, Saviello gave as an example. You can’t do anything anymore because they identify something else to protect, Philbrick told him.


Philbrick told Saviello the local voice gets lost because USFWS gets caught up with its own agenda, doesn’t answer to anyone, is not elected.

“I did a little bit of homework and found out they took away some of the hunting privileges at Moosehorn Refuge,” Saviello noted. The town council in Errol, New Hampshire, had to spend a couple million to buy a piece of land to stop USFWS from acquiring it, which would have taken away all the snowmobiling going on there, he stated. “That is what raised my concerns,” he said.

USFWS doesn’t hold public hearings, surprised locals with public listening sessions, Saviello noted. “They were going to write a tentative management plan after those listening sessions,” he explained. “So when I read that USFWS is postponing, here’s the thing: they will be back. I think they are hoping somebody like me and Bob Carlton, if we are still around we will be babbling idiots and nobody else will be able to fight them and organize the way we did to stop them.”

Nancy Perlson of Madrid Twp. was hired by USFWS to drum up support for the wildlife refuge, Saviello said. “Nancy is wonderful, does a lot of land conservation,” he stated. “I don’t think she realized how much wrath was going to be raised up with the federal government over this.”

USFWS was told people in this area cared about conservation measures, to give them a chance to continue those efforts through Land for Maine’s Future, Forest Legacy, other measures or conservation easements, Saviello said.

He indicated Carlton, Cote and himself were the three leading the charge against the wildlife refuge, with Carlton working with trappers, hunters and snowmobile associations; Carlton contacting various logging associations; and Saviello informing local and Washington delegations. “We kind of divided up and conquered together, but we had a lot of support,” he stated.


“We made that promise,” Saviello noted. “If we don’t carry out that promise, then USFWS has every right to come back and do what they need to do. The ball is in our court. The Governor’s office has a lot on its plate right now, I think in January will participate with us.”

Wednesday afternoon Scott Landry, treasurer of High Peaks Alliance said learning the refuge plans had been put on hold was great, that the alliance tried to stay out of the issue as much as it could. “Our mission is to preserve land in this area,” he noted. “We would rather do it with local control, not federal control. I think we are doing a good job and we don’t need help from the feds.

“We are really pleased that it happened that way. USFWS wanted the alliance initially to handle some funding with it but we deferred on that. It worked the way we needed.”

Several attempts were made to reach Carlton and Perlson for comments but were not successful.

In an email Wednesday, Cote wrote, “On behalf of the local residents who expressed concerns, professional guides, trappers and snowmobilers, we are grateful to Maine State, local, and congressional leaders who urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to halt their efforts and allow various stakeholders the opportunity to evaluate our conservation needs in the High Peaks region and explore what conservation models would work best. Conservation of these natural resources is critical, but it must be accomplished from the bottom up, in a manner that compliments local objectives and enjoys robust local support. We can do this, and I look forward to being part of that bigger conversation, with all stakeholders, in a meaningful way.”

“We sent the message. USFWS has gone away for now, will be back if we don’t do what we are saying we are going to do,” Saviello added.

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