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‘Civil War’ Raging in Maine Woods : Big Employer Says Rapids Must Be Dammed to Save Jobs

Times Staff Writer

A bald eagle soared lazily above the thundering rapids. Downstream, a bull moose stood in the rushing waters as fly fishermen cast quietly into swirling eddies for prized 2-foot salmon. In the distance, early morning clouds streamed like a volcanic plume off mile-high Mt. Katahdin.

But the peaceful scene on the remote West Branch of the Penobscot River in Maine’s rugged northern woods belies a bitter battle over the future of what national conservation groups now call the “the most threatened river in the country.”

At issue is a proposal by the Great Northern Paper Co. to build a 15-story, $100-million concrete dam here at the roaring “Big A” falls, to provide hydroelectric power to the company’s hard-pressed paper mills in Millinocket, 25 miles away.

“I consider this issue a civil war,” said Jeffrey A. Thaler, lead counsel to the state’s Penobscot Coalition to Save the West Branch. “It’s pitting a major force in the state, Great Northern, against a wide range of citizens and groups from across the state. It has caused a lot of strong emotions.”

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Neighbor Vs. Neighbor

“We’re not fighting the Ruskies on this one,” agreed Chuck Dunn, a tanned and lanky 29-year-old raft guide who is co-owner of the Rolling Thunder River Co. “It’s your next door neighbor.”

The fight is a classic one of jobs versus the environment. Great Northern, which owns 10% of all the land in Maine and is the state’s second-largest employer, says 1,700 jobs may be lost if the dam isn’t built. And union officials say building the dam will provide a critical boost to a chronically depressed area in one of the nation’s poorest states.

“Our feeling is it’s a greater experience to pick up a paycheck. That’s a greater experience than rafting the river,” said George Michaud, a burly 54-year-old Great Northern welder who is financial secretary of the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 362, one of 13 union locals that support the dam.

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But opponents say the dam will needlessly flood 4 1/2 miles of thrilling white-water rapids that attracted more than 15,000 rafters last year. The river also attracts visitors for its spectacular scenic beauty and nationally renowned salmon fishing, and the geologically unique Ripogenus Gorge.

“Our feeling is the Penobscot is the most threatened river in the country,” said Chris Brown, acting head of the Washington-based American Rivers Conservation Council and spokesman for eight national conservation groups lending their names and clout to oppose the dam.

“It’s a national treasure. It’s probably the only river I’ve been rafting on where you can dip your cup in the water and drink.”

Hard-Won Yosemite Battle

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Brown said the national conservation groups turned to the Penobscot after they won a 15-year struggle to prevent three hydroelectric and irrigation dams on the turbulent Tuolumne River west of Yosemite National Park, in California, last year. Both fights reflect growing concern over the use and misuse of the nation’s dwindling number of wild rivers, he said.

Actually, the Penobscot, an Abnaki Indian word meaning “place of the descending rocks,” is not true wilderness. Nor is the fight over the river new.

Lumberjacks logged along the river for 150 years until 1970, using dams and dynamite to float forests of virgin timber down to coastal mills. After Henry David Thoreau poled and portaged up the river with an Indian guide in 1846, he complained the loggers were “like so many busy demons to drive the forest all out of the country, from every solitary beaver swamp and mountainside, as soon as possible.”

Today, Great Northern already runs 19 other dams on the West Branch watershed, in one of the nation’s largest privately owned hydroelectric power systems. The company, which employs more than 4,000 workers and is the economic lifeblood of northern Maine, is a division of Great Northern Nekoosa Corp. of Stamford, Conn., which reported record sales last year of $1.8 billion.

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Great Northern spokesman Gordon R. Manuel said the Big A Dam, which would produce 226,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year, is needed to replace expensive oil-fired power plants now used to produce about 182,000 tons of paper, or 22% of total production, at the company’s two Millinocket mills.

‘Only Viable Alternative’

“The Big A dam is the only viable economic alternative for this company to maintain what it has now,” Manuel said. He said the company is increasingly vulnerable to cheaper Canadian imports, and that the industry is suffering its worst slump in 30 years.

Without the dam, he said, Great Northern may be forced to lay off 400 mill workers and 500 loggers. Those layoffs would affect another 800 jobs with the company’s suppliers and vendors, he said.

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But opponents say Great Northern has not adequately considered alternatives such as conserving energy in its mill operations or using large, wood-burning “biomass” generators instead of hydroelectric power.

“They kind of hold the employees hostage here,” said Mark Ishkanian, spokesman for the anti-dam Penobscot coalition of 12 state environmental and sports groups. “Despite what the company says, they have viable alternatives to the dam.”

The fight is still in its early stages. Lawyers on both sides, armed with nearly 400 witnesses and 1,850 exhibits, sparred for seven weeks this spring in hearings before the state’s Land Use Regulation Commission. The seven-member commission’s decision is due by Sept. 30.

The next round will be before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the regulatory arm of the U.S. Energy Department. Alan Mitchnick, a FERC wildlife biologist, said the commission has rarely refused a dam license on environmental grounds in the past.

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2-Year Review Process

Even without appeals, the lengthy regulatory process will take at least until late 1987, officials said. If the project is approved, dam planning and construction would take another four years.

But opening skirmishes already are raging in a bumper-sticker war. Millinocket bars and cars are festooned with “Big A All the Way” and “Big A OK,” while opponents counter with “No Way Big A.”

Gov. Joseph E. Brennan, a Democrat, has pledged neutrality in the fight. But Great Northern won a surprising ally in February, when owners of six of the largest rafting companies agreed, in a highly publicized press conference, not to oppose the dam.

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In exchange, Great Northern agreed to “mitigate” the damage done by the dam, by releasing water for rafting down an unused gorge, providing camping facilities on company land, improving access roads and stocking the river with salmon.

“A bunch of environmentalists who never worked a day in their life, never produced anything, comes and tells that company they don’t know what they’re doing,” said Wayne Hockmeyer, 47, who approved the agreement as owner of Northern Outdoors, the state’s largest river outfitter. “That’s crazy. We’ve got to live and work and play together up here.”

Roller Coaster of Rapids

Whatever the outcome, a recent day-long raft trip down the West Branch was a roaring roller coaster ride down treacherous rapids with names like “Exterminator,” “Cribworks,” “Turkey Shoot,” “Bone Cruncher” and “Troublemaker.” Ospreys and loons fished the river, and otters played near the densely wooded banks.

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Dunn paddled his six-person blue rubber raft ashore below the roiling, rocky “Big A” falls and looked back upstream, where a gnarled white tree trunk marked the proposed dam site.

“Everything we run will be non-existent,” he said sadly. “All this will be gone forever.”


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