Update: The U.S. Senate passed a bill reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) on Tuesday, February 12, 2019, in a 92-to-8 vote, followed by a 363-to-62 vote in the House of Representatives on February 26. The bill will now go to President Trump to sign into law.
Whenever Richard Barringer has been confronted with a major decision, he has taken a trip to Maine’s North Woods to paddle the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. “It makes me feel so good to be there,” he says. “It has a remoteness to it, an austere beauty. It’s peaceful. It’s really quite remarkable.” And as of October, it will stay that way—all of it.
Barringer was commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation not long after the Maine Legislature voted to create the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, in 1966. A remote ribbon of rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds located north of Baxter State Park, the 92-mile-long waterway winds through a natural setting that’s home to a blend of wildlife found nowhere else in New England. It also has been a destination for generations of paddlers, anglers, and campers.
For nearly its entire 50-year history, almost all of the land abutting the waterway was owned by the State of Maine, with just a couple of missing pieces. In October, the last privately owned parcel was purchased and subsequently donated to the state, putting the entire waterway in public hands. It was the culmination of a project made possible by federal, state, and private funding. “Now that it’s in state ownership, whatever threat may have existed in the future has been taken off the table,” says Bob McIntosh, president of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway Foundation, which facilitated both the purchase and donation of the land.
Visitors won’t notice any practical effects as a result of the purchase, since paddlers have been allowed to use the land, located between Eagle and Telos lakes, for portaging. “The private owner was public spirited and public minded,” McIntosh says. “That’s not to say that sometime in the future that property could have been sold to an unfriendly private owner who would charge a fee or do inappropriate development.”
The original purchase of the land was made possible by a contribution of federal money through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). When voters in Maine approved a $1.5 million bond issue in 1966, they did so with the understanding that the LWCF would match that amount. “That was really the precondition, truly,” says Barringer, now a professor at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. “Maine people aren’t stingy, but they are much more inclined to act when there’s matching money on the table.”
Today, however, the LWCF is threatened. Due for renewal in 2015, the fund has yet to be reauthorized by Congress, leaving future conservation projects similar to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in danger. Without the LWCF, Barringer sees a possible future of “incomplete public facilities, sprawl, and a failure to protect sensitive places and areas in and around nationally important landscapes.”
Land conserved with the aid of LWCF also has been shown to provide economic benefits to a region since it provides stability, according to Bryan Wentzell, the Maine policy and program director for AMC. “If you’re not sure what the future of the land is going to be, it’s hard to make longterm planning decisions,” he says.
Contributions from foundations and other private sources aren’t likely to fill the void since they already play a role in the acquisition of private land, McIntosh says. “The combination of public money at the state or local level, philanthropic funds, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund have in many cases come together to make an acquisition possible.” While the future of LWCF remains uncertain, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway stands as testimony to the power of a public/private funding formula.