Mainers battle over a `wild' river. Paper firm's hydropower dam on Penobscot would replace rapids with lake

Great Northern Paper Company, Maine's largest single employer, wants to build its 20th dam on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. A coalition of naturalists, fishermen, rafters and others is determined to block the project. NEW England is historic, quaint, scenic; it has the seaside for summer, foliage in the fall, skiing in winter, and a spring that is all the sweeter for being so long in coming.

What old New England doesn't have is wilderness. Humans have left their marks on the remotest areas of this tight little region of the United States.

But there are places that have retained, or regained, many of the characteristics of wilderness. One of those treasured spots has become the object of a controversy that will reach its peak within the next couple of years.

Great Northern Paper Company in Millinocket wants to build a dam on the West Branch of the Penobscot River -- the company's 20th dam in the watershed -- to provide electric power it expects to need in the next decade. The reservoir behind that dam would inundate a large part of the wildest, most scenic stretch of what many consider the region's finest relatively unspoiled stream.

That 41/2-to-5-mile segment of the West Branch contains the best white-water rafting area in the Northeast and a landlocked salmon fishery that attracts sportsmen from all over America and abroad. Its heavily wooded banks harbor varied wildlife, including two bald eagle nesting sites. (There is a ``mitigation plan'' for trying to save the eagle nests if the dam is built.)

Naturally, the dam proposal is not going unchallenged. A number of organizations, some of which do not always see things eye to eye, have formed the Penobscot Coalition to Save the West Branch. Included are the Natural Resources Council of Maine; the Eastern Professional River Outfitters Association; the Appalachian Mountain Club; the Maine Audubon Society; the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine; Trout Unlimited (Maine Council); the Whitewater Outfitters Association of Maine; the New England Rivers Center (in Boston); the Sierra Club (Maine Group); the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society; the New England Fly Tyers; and the Moosehead Lake Wilderness Association.

Chris Brown of the American Rivers Council in Washington, D.C., which led a successful fight last year to block development on the Tuolumne River in California, says the Penobscot now has ``No. 1 priority nationally.''

The West Branch controversy is not a typical environmental confrontation between a business that wants to exploit a natural resource and people who wish to preserve it for present and future generations. Great Northern Paper (GNP) is by far Maine's major employer. It marshals impressive economic arguments for construction of its proposed power dam. But opponents of the project combine economic arguments of their own with the expected aesthetic appeals.

GNP has been around since 1898, when the company set up shop with 338,000 acres of woodland in Maine's north woods. It now owns 2.2 million acres -- stretching northward from Millinocket toward Canada, covering the East and West Branch watersheds of the Penobscot, Maine's largest river, and embracing Baxter State Park, which includes massive Mt. Katahdin.

The company operates two paper mills (in Millinocket and East Millinocket) and a sawmill (at Nashville Plantation), employs 4,100 workers, has an annual payroll of more than $130 million, and pays more than $16 million a year in state taxes. It maintains the largest industrial hydropower system in the Northeast. It has 19 dams in the West Branch watershed -- six producing 80,000 kilowatts of electricity and 13 used for water storage.

Now the company says that in order to compete with Canadian producers of wood products, maintain jobs for its employees, reduce use of oil, and maintain clean-air standards, it needs to build the ``Big A'' dam at Big Ambejackmockamus Falls on the West Branch. The hydropower facility would produce 40,000 kilowatts of electricity, reduce oil use by 438,000 barrels a year, and save more than 900 jobs, company officials say.

Opponents say a wood-fired power plant would replace more oil than the dam, add 250 local jobs, and eliminate the need to destroy the best white-water section of the river and an unmatched salmon fly-fishing area.

GNP owns all the land in the area that would be affected by its dam -- even the river bed. But the river itself belongs to the people of Maine and the US.

Even the most avid preservationists in the coalition acknowledge that without the access roads maintained by GNP, only the hardiest outdoorsmen could enjoy the river's natural assets. The company has long made most of its vast woodland acreage in northern Maine accessible to fishermen, hunters, hikers, and other recreationalists via 2,500 miles of company roads.

Opponents of Big A have two main lines of argument: They insist that there are good alternatives to building yet another dam on the West Branch; and they say the growing recreational industry in the area will be a major economic asset to Maine long after the wood resource that keeps the paper mills running has been depleted.

Nick Albann of Bangor has a small fishing supply business, guides salmon fishermen, and is a member of Trout Unlimited. He discussed the Big A situation shortly after a long-distance conversation with a customer, a Swiss sportsman who will be coming to Maine after the spring thaw to fish for landlocked salmon on the West Branch.

Asked if the Big A dam could be compatible with the sport fishery, Mr. Albann replied: ``Absolutely not.'' With the dam, he explains, ``you would still have [salmon] fishing, but it would be a very different experience. It would be a stocked fishery in a lake at deep levels. What you have now is fly fishing. Europeans as well as Americans come to fish in the West Branch.'' They wouldn't come, and spend their money, for the lake fishing, he says.

Paul McGann, GNP's manager of public affairs, argues that ``recreational opportunites will not be severely damaged'' by the Big A dam. ``There is opportunity for growth of the fishing resource,'' he says, pointing out that the reservoir would be stocked with salmon, some of which would be released downstream after reaching adulthood.

Albann doesn't agree. And he says he would not support the dam project even if the salmon fishery were unharmed: ``Some things shouldn't be sold at any price. I look on this river as a heritage for my grandchildren. If the dam were built, at some point in the future it would be abandoned, but the river could never be restored to its previous condition.''

William Dallam is river manager for Eastern River Expeditions, a rafting outfit that handles, in season, 560 rafters a day on the West Branch and 800 on the Kennebec River. He says that if the Big A dam is built, rafting on the Penobscot will be cut in half and his company will leave it to other operators.

Ripogenus Gorge and the ``Crib Works,'' the two most exciting rapids on the river, would be lost, says Mr. Dallam. Also, the downriver trip would be split into two parts, and rides shortened.

Dallam explains that under the system for rating white water, the West Branch, at Class V, is near the top. Great Northern ``has an option,'' he insists. ``We don't. They dam the Penobscot, and we're out.''

Mr. McCann says, ``Rafting opportunities will still be there -- a different trip, but still good.'' Some rafters have accepted that argument and dropped their opposition to the Big A project.

The Penobscot Coalition argues that GNP has reasonable alternatives to Big A. Most often mentioned is a power plant fueled by biomass (wood and other wastes). Others suggestions include more turbines at existing dams or a new dam at another site.

But McCann says the cost for installing and running a wood-burning or biomass power plant would be 21/2 to 3 times that for hydropower. He also says the company already has two wood-fired power plants and has ``used up the available cheap fuel and solved our waste-disposal problems.''

At stake in the coming years, says McCann, is 20 percent of Great Northern's production, which could be lost to Canadian competitors if old power sources cannot be phased out and replaced by the hydropower from Big A. Of the 900 jobs GNP says are at stake, McCann explains that 400 would be from the company payroll and some 500 others involve independent wood suppliers.

The coalition says a biomass power plant would add 250 jobs. And, it argues, Big A would severely damage recreational business projected at $10 million a year by 1994.

Like most environmental battles in recent decades, this one will not be over in a hurry. Great Northern has to get approval for the dam project from a state and a federal agency. It has filed applications with Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

LURC can issue a permit 105 days after it receives the application. FERC, part of the US Department of Energy, has a longer timetable and much better resources for conducting studies and producing environmental impact statements.

The Penobscot Coalition's strategy at this point, says Everett Carson, director of the Natural Resources Council in Maine and a leading member of the coalition, is to have the Legislature pass a bill that would have the 105-day ``clock'' on LURC approval start after FERC issues its final environmental impact statement.

This would give the coalition more time to make its case, both locally and nationally. It would also give LURC access to FERC research findings that the state agency might not be able to produce on its own.

A major difficulty for the coalition, however, is GNP's economic and political influence in Maine. Gov. Joseph E. Brennan and other state officials are well aware of the company's key role in the economy of a state not noted for its wealth. Many officeholders, including several top legislative leaders, have ties to the paper company.

In 1983 the Legislature passed the Maine Rivers Bill, which prohibits construction of dams on portions of rivers in the state totaling 1,100 miles.

But the six miles on the West Branch that would be affected by the Big A project were not protected because, coalition sources say, Governor Brennan had promised Great Northern he would be ``neutral'' in the debate on building the dam. The governor still maintains that ``neutrality.''

Some of those working to block the new dam are talking about mounting a statewide referendum drive to delay action on the project if the bill postponing LURC's Big A decision is turned down.

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