FARMINGTON — Selectmen have voted to support a letter opposing a national wildlife refuge proposed in northern Franklin County.

A map designates an area of the High Peaks Region in western Maine where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering establishing a wildlife refuge of 5,000 to 15,000 acres. The area stretches from the northeast corner of Byron in Oxford County, northeast into parts or all of some towns, townships and plantations in Franklin County. Sun Journal file photo

“Earlier in the spring the United States Fish and Wildlife Service decided to propose at least the conceptual idea of a national wildlife refuge roughly in the area between Weld, Smalls Falls and Flagstaff Lake …,” James Cote of Farmington, representative for several Maine recreational organizations, told the board Sept. 26.

“They drew a 200,000-acre circle on a map,” he said. “They did make clear that their intention was to not do something 200,000 acres in total but to probably aggregate something between 10,000, 20,000 acres more or less.”

He said he, Franklin County Commissioner Bob Carlton of Freeman Township, former state Sen.  Tom Saviello of Wilton and others got together to discuss the proposal.

“We are all believers in conservation,” he said. “We have all worked on conservation efforts at the State House, here in Franklin County and elsewhere. Obviously that place is a gem of a natural resource and we all want to see that protected.”

The group is not opposed to conservation, Cote stressed. “The problem, the concern that many of us have is when you inject sort of sweeping federal ownership into a working forest, into areas that are seeking to grow, whether that’s ski mountains or anywhere else, it becomes problematic. It only takes a simple Google search to be able to see the amount of litigation that gets tied up with these national wildlife refuges, the amount of recreational access that gets altered over time.”


Federal refuges can see commitments made today change when the people first involved leave, Cote said. It is easier to settle differences in Augusta than Washington, D.C., he added.

“I think we would much prefer local control,” Cote said. “We have circulated a letter to other communities saying we oppose this top-down approach and instead invite USFWS to be a partner at the table if we want to have a discussion going forward on conservation. We think we should have it from the ground up and it should really start with Franklin County stakeholders.”

Farmington is a key service center area for the northern part of the county, Cote said. “We want these areas to grow, we also want conservation. I think we can have our cake and eat it too. It just doesn’t happen with a national refuge.”

Saviello said he first thought it was a great opportunity when the idea of a High Peaks National Wildlife Refuge was first proposed 10 years ago. He changed his mind after Steve Philbrick, former owner of Bald Mountain Camps in Rangeley, told him, “‘Don’t you realize they make all these promises, then 10 to 15 years later when they rewrite the management plan it becomes political, they change the plan and you lose everything?'”

Errol, New Hampshire, is a great example, Saviello said. “That town has spent $2 million to ensure its snowmobile trails continue to operate.”

Saviello turned against the refuge and it went away, but recent listening sessions held in Farmington and Rangeley have brought it back.


Franklin County has hundreds of acres in conservation programs and working with Augusta is preferred, Saviello said.

“Avon, Phillips, Strong, Kingfield, Stratton, Rangeley and Wilton have already voted against this,” he noted. “We are not interested in the federal government coming in. We are interested in conservation and we want to work toward doing that.”

Maine’s congressional delegation has written to USFWS stating Maine will work on something on its own, Saviello said. Gov. Janet Mills is also against it, he said.

Voters approved bear baiting several years ago, but that isn’t allowed on public refuges in the state, Saviello noted.

Selectman Joshua Bell thought the best approach was to get landowners to be more conscientious about conservation. He asked how many landowners there were in the proposed refuge area.

“That’s one of the scarier pieces of the whole conversation is that they draw that 200,000 acre circle,” Cote replied. “I don’t think it is going to be that large. They go in and start talking to landowners to see who is willing to sell. You just don’t know who in that circle is willing to sell. It’s a jigsaw puzzle right now. We don’t know who would be interested.”

Sugarloaf and Saddleback are in the circle, Saviello said. “You have the big landowners and little ones like me who own 80 acres,” he said.

Board Chairman Matthew Smith has cut timber on some of the land. “We manage our land very well, it has some of the best timber I have ever cut in the state,” he said. ” Why would we want to hand that to the United States government?”

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