Allagash Checkpoints Torched

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 5/24/02

Tensions between woodcutters and landowners are a way of life in the Allagash area. Pay, working conditions and hiring Canadian bonded labor over Americans are issues that have led in recent years to loggers blocking ports of entry into Quebec and political inquiries.
(Photos from North Maine Woods website.)

North Maine Woods, Inc. is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for burning down two checkpoint stations in the town of Allagash, spokesman Al Cowperthwaite said Thursday. The state police and fire marshalís offices are investigating the fires at the Dickey and Little Black checkpoints as arson.

Over the years, three checkpoints, where user fees are collected, have been moved closer and closer to town, according to first selectman Ricky McBreairty. Allagash logger/activist Troy Jackson said the checkpoints "make it impossible to go through one end of town to the other without having to pay a gate fee. Allagash is the only town that has been restricted in this way," he said. "I canít believe itís legal to gate off the town."

Cowperthwaite and Allagash selectmen were scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the situation. "We want [NMW] to look at moving the gates outside town limits," said third selectman Louis Pelletier III. "Weíre not anti-landowner or anti-North Maine Woods but more for our citizens," he said. "Itís not fair that the gates are" close in to residences, Pelletier said. "Weíre trying to make it a fairness issue."

NMW is the entity created in the 1970s by the owners of three million acres of commercial timberland to manage gates, collect fees and oversee maintenance of recreational sites. Day use fees for residents for 2002 are $4 per person, and overnight is another $3 per person. (Fees are higher for non-residents.) Cowperwaite has reiterated over the years that the fees are for road and campsite maintenance and not to augment income to landowners. Visitors sign in and out, and the system allows landowners to know who is on their land, if not always where they are.

Jackson, however, believes the gates were moved into town to increase fee revenues and to have stronger control of users. He doubts that all the income is spent for maintenance. "The only time they do road maintenance is when logs are being hauled, and the campsite cleanup isnít so good," Jackson claimed. .

"Everyone knows who calls the shots up here Ė Irving . . . Irving owns it all."

"Nowhere you can go in the woods up here without paying," he said. "Everyone knows who calls the shots up here Ė Irving . . . Irving owns it all," Jackson said, referring to Irving Woodlands, Maineís largest forestland owner. Woodlands manager Chuck Gadzik was in the field with auditors from the Forest Stewardship Council and couldnít be reached for comment.

The question surrounding the checkpoint fires is whether the arson was an act of retaliation to the gate fees or an accident, said McBreairty. The checkpoint stations Ė one a fairly new log building and the other a small wooden building with a trailer for sleeping -- were burned down on a Saturday night when there were several parties going on in town. "It could be individuals out of hand and intoxicated with no more purpose than that or arson by someone with a definite purpose," said McBreairty.

Tensions between woodcutters and landowners are a way of life in the Allagash area. Pay, working conditions and hiring Canadian bonded labor over Americans are issues that have led in recent years to loggers blocking ports of entry into Quebec and political inquiries.

Cowperthwaite said that landowners have had "on-going" problems with arson and vandalism in the Allagash region. Locals have been disgruntled over the gates for many years, said Jackson, and people have "run through them" with their vehicles in the past.

The three checkpoint stations within the town limits are Dickey, on the St. John about 500 feet from a town road; the Little Black, on the Little Black River, about 20 feet from Rt. 161 and with two homes behind it; and Allagash, on the Allagash River about a quarter mile from a tarred road. Two of the checkpoints are on Irving land leased to NMW, and the third is on a parcel that NMW owns.

McBreairty said the checkpoint stations have moved from just outside the town limits to inside town limits and residential areas. The most obvious, he said, is the Little Black River station. "That gate is right in the settlement area," he said. Cowperthwaite said visibility is an important factor in choosing a checkpoint site. "We always try to pick the most logical [places] so [truckers] can see and not have to stop on a hill," he said.

There are residents behind the Little Black checkpoint, Cowperthwaite acknowledged, but he said they donít pay a fee to access their homes or town. Jackson said the location of the gates means that locals pay more to get to their favorite fishing hole. The fees, along with increasing fish limits per person "have killed the whole thing," he said of that particular sport.

Jackson predicted that if the town pushes the gates outside town limits, it wonít be well-received by landowners. "By doing this, the gates will be up to 10 miles farther back, and most all of the checkpoints will have to be doubled to block additional roads," he said.

Jackson refused to pay the NMW fees Thursday when he "went to speak to a man about work." The checkpoint staffer wanted to charge him the day use fee. "They said you pay now and bring a note back that you were looking for work, and weíll give you your money back," he related. "I said Iíve never had to do that. Iím not doing that. It was silly," he said, and Jackson drove through without a problem.

Cowperthwaite reported that trailers have been set up at the checkpoint locations to collect fees until log buildings can be rebuilt at the Dickey and Little Black sites. The Allagash gates opened for business on May 15.