Sen. Martin: Get off that bulldozer and fight fair

Editorial: Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc. There is not a body of water in the entire state of Maine as controversial and politicized as the Allagash River. Centerpiece of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, the river is embedded in a regulatory contradiction -- it's a federally-designated wild river smack in the middle of a working forest. A holy war of sorts has raged over the river during the 40 years since it has been designated part of that wilderness, when the state committed to managing the waterway for its "maximum wilderness character." Conservationists push for the state to live up to its legal obligations to manage for that character -- which means limiting vehicular access to the river. They want only a few put-in points for boats, only a few roads leading to the river and only a few bridge crossings; that is, indeed, what the federal and state laws relating to the Allagash require. The more roads there are, the less wilderness there is. Locals, on the other hand, say their river has been stolen from them. They've grown increasingly angry as they feel their access to their river is being cut off. There's been legislation proposed to thwart the wilderness designation over the last decades, illegal accesses built, lawsuits filed. For wilderness advocates, the Allagash is a sacred spot being defiled; for a group of local residents, they don't need no stinkin' holy war. They just want to go fishing; they want to be able to drive in to the river on a lot of roads, and to hell with federal and state law. Early in his administration, Gov. John Baldacci encouraged his commissioner of conservation, Pat McGowan, to negotiate an end to the Allagash wars. McGowan assembled a broad group of interested parties up in Millinocket, where they worked hard with a facilitator and hammered out an agreement that designated a specific number of access points, closed others, and allowed both sides to save face. The compromise -- called the River Drivers' Agreement -- was signed by participants, including Sen. John Martin, whose home town of Eagle Lake is in the region. Roads and trails that were deemed inappropriate access points were closed, and it looked like peace might have broken out. But that was not to be. This past session, Martin introduced legislation that forced the state to abandon the River Drivers' Agreement, and threw the management of the waterway into chaos. And then, this past week, Martin took even more direct action. Every act in a holy war takes on a larger-than-life quality, its symbolism magnified. Thus, when Martin joined Rep. Troy Jackson, D-Fort Kent, and a group of others on the Fourth of July, entered the so-called "restricted zone" along the Allagash, bulldozed open a road to the river that had been closed by state officials and hacked down alders with a chainsaw, it was a shocking act, guaranteed to enrage many and inspire others. The spectacle of a powerful state lawmaker rumbling through the woods on a bulldozer, armed with a chainsaw that was used to cut trees and branches that got in the way, was classic provocation. "We basically filled in the ditch," protested Martin. But this was more than that. This road had been closed through the sensitive set of negotiations among adversaries that led to the finely crafted compromise that Martin himself signed, the "River Drivers' Agreement." It was a potent symbol being vandalized. We wonder, did the bulldozer sport a bumper sticker that said "Free the Allagash"? Anyone but the powerful Martin would have been stopped in his tracks. Indeed, a ranger encountered Martin, Jackson and the others, but did nothing to stop them. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway's manager, state employee Marilyn Tourtelotte, contacted Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands Director David Soucy about the incident on July 5, but still nothing was done to stop the continued work to open the road, which that day was being done by Martin's associates. Tourtelotte told Soucy that she was "shocked" it was happening and that no active notifications or applications for harvest (of the trees) had been submitted, but the road work was allowed to continue. And such is the power of the estimable Martin that although officials at the Department of Conservation knew potential violations of law might be involved, only when reporters started calling did the department publicly announce an investigation. It appears that they hoped the whole thing would just go away. It hasn't, and it shouldn't. Martin has dismissed critics of his act as "worthless," and has coyly declined to take full responsibility for the act -- "I was on it," he said of the bulldozer. "I won't say I ran it." At the same time, he has brazenly justified the bulldozing, saying the road should not have been closed by the state in the first place. "They didn't talk to local people," he said. "They just came in and did this." That's not true. As we mentioned earlier, Martin himself was one of the local people to whom the state talked about closing the road and he signed the agreement that led to its closing. He even tried to get the road opened by legislative fiat, but failed at that. So he bulldozed it open himself. Ah, but memories are short during election season when a politician is playing to the crowd. Two things must now be done. The Attorney General's Office should investigate the incident to determine if laws were broken. Attorney General Steven Rowe is a man of great integrity, but his office faces a unique problem when it undertakes the investigation of a legislator. The attorney general must be voted into office at the beginning of every legislative session by members of the House and Senate and thus is arguably beholden to any legislator his office might investigate, including Martin, a Democrat, who controls a large bloc of votes in the Senate (and even many in the House). Thus we would recommend that Rowe take the important step of separating his office from the investigation by selecting an independent and distinguished member of the legal community to be special counsel. Second, Baldacci should dump Martin from the committee he's assembled to consider the future of the Allagash. In an attempt to fix the last Allagash train wreck engineered by Martin, where the Legislature this past spring pitched the waterway's management into disarray, the governor assembled a working group to grapple with the Allagash issue. That working group was stacked with Martin allies, and indeed Martin himself and one of his associates in the bulldozing episode are both members. The group hardly seemed like it was meant to accomplish much, but creating it allowed the governor to say he was doing something in the wake of a tough legislative battle over the river. But now, Martin has handed the governor a big political headache with his ill-advised actions of this past week. At this point, it is clear that Martin has no interest in fashioning a fair and peaceful settlement to the decades of conflict on the Allagash. He should be removed from the group, though that leaves many of his allies in place. The governor should reconsider this approach to mapping the Allagash's future and instead contemplate assembling a truly representative group that will do a fair and honest assessment of the waterway. It will be a tough job, because that was already done once -- twice -- even three times, and each time, compromises were undermined, violated or betrayed. We're not sure there's enough trust now to do anything constructive about this issue, but we must try. The Allagash cannot be abandoned to the destructive politics of power; it is a national treasure with which we have been entrusted, and our stewardship of this river is a measure of our values, maturity and resolve.