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Allagash Wilderness Waterway




The Allagash Wilderness Waterway was created in 1966 when the people of Maine voted to protect the river by supporting a $1.5 million bond that would “develop the maximum wilderness character” of the Allagash River.


In 1970, the Allagash became the first state administered river under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Allagash was to be managed as a wild river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which means that it should be accessible mainly by trail.


Churchill Dam

Churchill Dam, formerly a log structure was allowed to remain in the river at the time of designation only because it was a historic-type structure.  Ordinarily, rivers protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act must be free flowing.


In the mid 1990’s, Churchill Dam was failing and there were concerns that if the dam was not replaced, the recreational opportunities for both angling and canoeing would diminish.  In 1997, Maine voters approved a bond to rebuild Churchill Dam.


The construction of the new dam took place without taking into consideration the historic character of the dam and without consulting the National Park Service or the Army Corp of Engineers for the appropriate permits. The resulting structure at Churchill Depot on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway is a concrete and steel structure that does not meet the requirements of a Wild classification under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.


Following a flood of comments from Maine Sierrans and other Allagash advocates, the State of Maine and the National Park Service, on February 22, 2002, signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on mitigation of the State’s illegal reconstruction of the Churchill Dam.  The agreement required that the Maine Department of Conservation close down one access point on the river and move another one at John’s Bridge to at least 500 feet from the water. In addition, the agreement required that the current state management plan be opened for review and revision, so that it better reflects the federal guidelines of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.


Of more than 1400 comments received by the Department of Conservation on the proposal, 90% supported the agreement as a statement for wilderness protection of the Allagash. The National Park Service reported that it had received 600 letters in support of the MOA and a wild Allagash and 50 against.  Sierra Club activists also turned out at hearings held across the state and testified on behalf of the wilderness qualities of the river.


River Drivers Agreement

In 2003 Department of Conservation Commissioner, Pat McGowan, assembled sixteen Allagash stakeholders in a facilitated issue resolution process now known as the Allagash Wilderness Waterway River Drivers Agreement (named after the restaurant facility where the meeting was held). 


The sixteen stakeholders, balanced to represent different viewpoints, were able to resolve many long-standing issues through the strong leadership of Commissioner McGowan and Deputy Commissioner Karin Tilberg. The finished product set up a framework for an action plan to improve the wilderness protection of the river. The most notable highlights were:

  • No development at John's Bridge. There will be no parking lot and no developed canoe launch --  Local fishermen who currently put canoes in at the bridge, illegally, will now apply for a special sticker that can be used only in May and September.

  • Several inappropriate roads and trails will be closed;

  • the State plans to move aggressively to acquire additional "wilderness" lands for the waterway;

  • Unnecessary buildings and camps will be removed; and the State will begin a carrying capacity study and will research a reservation system - similar to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  Some of the local concerns about access were solved by agreeing to improve roads and trails to some of the existing legal access points.

One of America's Most Endangered Rivers

A logging road alongside the Allagash was bulldozed open in 2006 by northern Maine legislators and local residents without state or federal authorization. Despite public outcry and blatant disregard for federal law, no enforcement action was taken.  In addition, plans are in the works to build a massive, permanent bridge over the river, which would fundamentally change the character of a 50-mile stretch of the Wilderness Waterway. Because of this and other threats to the river's wilderness character  In 2008 the Allagash was named one of America's Most Endangered Rivers.


Allagash Wilderness Waterway Advisory Council

The Allagash Wilderness Waterway Advisory Council was established in 2007 in order to aid in the management of the Allagash. The Council was instructed to work with the manager of the waterway to develop a strategic plan for the Allagash and to advance the mission and goals of the waterway. In the spring of 2010 the Council released their strategic plan which was later approved by Department of Conservation Commissioner, Eliza Townsend. The final plan can be seen here.


Next Steps: The Allagash will need the vigilant support of wilderness advocates as opportunities to protect the river emerge.  It’s important to remember that the State of Maine made a commitment 30 years ago to “develop the maximum wilderness character” of the river. It will take constant public pressure to ensure that this re-commitment is met.



To schedule an Allagash presentation in your community contact Karen Woodsum .




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