Since Henry David Thoreau traversed it in a birch-bark canoe more than a century ago, the Allagash country has changed. The dense forest, the jeweled lakes and the sparkling brooks he wrote about then remain, and the Allagash River itself is as challenging and wild a canoe route as any in America. But the wilderness quality of the area is in serious jeopardy.
The Allagash country has been most affected by the paper companies—Great Northern, International Paper and others—which own virtually all of the one million forest acres in this working wilderness. The majestic white pine has long been exterminated by overcutting, and spruce, balsam fir and a variety of hardwoods are now the area's principal products. And although the paper companies today cut more selectively than the unscrupulous oldtime timber barons who clear-cut for quick profit, the area has lost much of its intangible wilderness aura because of the noise and extent of mechanized logging operations. Sportsmen now can drive over a network of paper company roads into areas once accessible only by woodsmen's trails, canoe or horse.
It is because of these changes that the Allagash is now the focal point of a controversy that is also affecting America's wilderness areas elsewhere—the issue of multiple use. The battle here is primarily between two parties: the government and the landowners. Afraid that the Allagash would eventually lose all of its wilderness recreational potential because of increased commercial logging, the Federal Government last year proposed to buy from the paper companies (for an estimated $9 million) a tract of 296,000 acres, including 63 lakes and 360 miles of rivers and streams. The tract would become a national recreation area under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Fishing, hunting, camping and canoeing would be encouraged, and access roads would be limited to preserve the region's wilderness character. All logging would be prohibited.
The opposition to government intervention came from the paper companies (and from the State of Maine as well), and it was immediate and vigorous. They argue that true multiple use of a forest means selective cutting, which increases wildlife populations by providing more browse feed, as well as recreation and wilderness preservation. They insist they have been following just such a policy and can continue to do so without the government's help.
August 5, 1962
Apparently as a concession to the paper companies, the government is now considering limited logging in the area. Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall, after an inspection trip of the Allagash last month, suggested making the area "part of a national forest...a sort of halfway thing with some harvesting still being done."
Ironically, while the paper companies and the government battle over the practical meaning of multiple use and who will "save the Allagash," a proposed U.S.-Canada hydroelectric power project at Rankin Rapids on the St. John River, 8½ miles below the mouth of the Allagash, may decide the fate of the area once and for all. The dam would create a reservoir of some 93,000 acres which would flood 98% of the Allagash River, effectively eliminating the famed canoe route and a fine native brook trout fishery as well as the proposed recreation area and a good chunk of paper company land. An alternate proposal, involving dams at Big Rapids and Lincoln School on the St. John, would preserve most of the Allagash River but is expected to be far more costly than Rankin Rapids.
There have been other suggestions on how to continue cutting and still save part of the Allagash for wilderness recreation: zoning by the state legislature or a trusteeship or a nonprofit corporation. None of these "solutions," however, is as yet well defined. The basic issue remains unresolved: how the Allagash can best be managed for the future, and by whom. A compromise is clearly needed—one that will maintain as much of the wilderness character of the Allagash as possible, while providing for increased recreational facilities and truly selective cutting of its timber. Steps must be taken that will, in Thoreau's own words, "rather preserve its life than destroy it."