Maine’s congressional delegation has urged federal officials to halt the still-emerging discussions over a proposed National Wildlife Refuge in the High Peaks Region of western Maine, delivering a serious blow to the idea.
The letter from U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, said the federal government should “terminate its evaluation of the High Peaks Region for inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge system and instead, work with the established local conservation entities and the state to address any wildlife-related issues.’’
The lawmakers said they have “serious concerns” about the refuge and pointed to mounting opposition to the proposal.
“Given the extensive conservation efforts already established in the region, it is unclear what additional benefits the creation of a new National Wildlife Refuge would provide,’’ the lawmakers wrote in a letter dated Aug. 3. “To date, the USFWS has not articulated a clear conservation failure that needs to be corrected or a conservation objective that could only be addressed through the establishment of a federal refuge. If existing conservation efforts are failing or not living up to their potential, the USFWS should work with state and local partners to adjust existing management efforts rather than layering direct federal management over the existing conservation landscape.’’
The delegation letter is a sharp turnaround for a proposal that surfaced only a few months ago. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this spring began exploring the creation of a roughly 200,000-acre refuge straddling the Appalachian Trail in the High Peaks region.
But opponents of the proposal, led primarily by Bob Carlton, a Franklin County Commissioner, soon began voicing concerns.
Those staunchly against the refuge have said state and local conservation efforts in the area are sufficient. They are wary of federal oversight, which they say could limit hunting and recreation access; others say it’s too soon to decide either way.
On Saturday, Nancy Perlson, a consultant who has been working with US Fish and Wildlife Service, said she expects the agency and other supporters to meet as soon as next week to discuss alternatives.
“We trying to figure out where we go from here,’’ Perlson said. “”Obviously the major concern is federal ownership.’’
The delegation letter, reported by the Portland Press Herald, came after a third Franklin County town signed on this week to a letter to Maine’s congressional delegation opposing the national wildlife refuge, while a separate town abstained from a commitment.
The Wilton Board of Selectpersons unanimously approved the letter Tuesday and the Carrabassett Valley Select Board decided not to take a stance after a discussion with a federal official and an opposition member.
As originally envisioned, the refuge would likely be pared down to between 5,000 and 15,000 acres, according to Perlson, the local conservation consultant.
The High Peaks region encompasses some of the highest mountains in Maine and one of the state’s largest roadless expanses.
Paul Casey, a Fish and Wildlife official managing the process, has said the refuge would provide more opportunity for conservation and protection of local wildlife than the state currently offers.
Over the past few months, the agency has held a series of “scoping sessions” in Rangeley, Farmington and Carrabassett Valley to hear public input. Casey had hoped to develop a final proposal by this fall, followed by a 45-day public comment period.
Along with Wilton, other Franklin County officials have begun voicing opposition to the proposal.
In May, the Eustis Select Board voted unanimously to oppose it and was followed in June by the Franklin County Commission, which voted 2-0-1 in opposition, with one abstention.
Both the town and county went on to sign the opposition letter, which Carlton said was written by a coalition of citizens who oppose the refuge.
The town of Avon’s select board also signed the letter, a town official said Friday.
Carlton and Tom Saviello, a former state representative and Wilton selectperson, attended Wilton’s meeting Tuesday to lay out their arguments against the proposal and present the letter.
“We all want to protect the High Peaks, there’s no question about it,” Carlton said. “We want to keep what’s there, we want to keep it open for all the things we like to do,” like hunting, fishing, ATVing and snowmobiling.
Carlton said ATVs wouldn’t be allowed on the refuge, and certain hunting methods would be restricted — including bear hunting with bait and using lead ammunition on small birds and game.
“All of a sudden we have a piece of land … that we can do what we want and we follow the state of Maine laws and regulations,” Carlton said. “Now we’re saying, ‘Come here, but these are the rules you have to follow,’ so it’s restricted right off the bat.”
Saviello, who said he supported an earlier USFWS refuge proposal in 2013, emphasized that the current proposal would pull control from local residents and center it in Washington as opposed to Augusta.
“If there’s a problem in the refuge, with access and so forth, where do you have to go? Washington D.C.,” Saviello said. “If there’s a problem on public lands today, you go to Augusta, you go to your legislator, you have a voice that’s very strong if it’s managed by the state.”
Casey, the USFWS official managing the process, is based in New Hampshire, where he is the manager of the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, which includes parts of western Maine.
Selectperson Mike Wells agreed with Saviello, saying the refuge would dilute local input.
“The closer it is to home, the more of a voice we have,” Wells said.
The Carrabassett Valley Select Board took no action following a similar conversation with Carlton, as well as Casey and Perlson.
Though two select board members said they were apprehensive of the proposal, another expressed being uncomfortable with voting in opposition that night, adding that he thinks the community wants to know more, according to the Daily Bulldog.
That sentiment is reflected in a recent editorial by Will Lund, editor of The Maine Sportsman magazine.
In an article before the delegation letter was sent, Lund wrote in the August edition that fellow recreationists should hear out the USFWS and not jump to conclusions while the refuge proposal is in such early planning days.
“The easiest position to take on such proposals is an automatic ‘No,’ since many of us have a healthy distrust of the federal government in any form,” Lund wrote. “However, in our view it does not make sense to shut down the conversation.”
Lund went on to refute claims that the refuge would outlaw hunting, fishing, general public access and the rights of current private landowners.
In regard to snowmobile and ATV use, Lund wrote that the USFWS knows no proposal would be supported unless it called for continuation of snowmobile and other motorized travel.
He also asks outdoorspeople to consider whether private landowners will commit to public access in the future, rounding the editorial out with a contemplative approach to what the USFWS is proposing.
“To be clear, we are not supporting establishment of a refuge. How could we?” Lund wrote.
“There has been no written, detailed plan put forth that draws the boundary on a map, or that takes into consideration the input the Service has received,” and other questions need addressing, he added.
“However, it’s important to keep talking. It’s challenging to think in the long terms that are required to ensure access to land for our children and our children’s children. However, when land is developed, it’s gone forever. Let’s hear the feds out on this one.”