July 13, 2011

GEORGE SMITH: Quimby's park plan could boost Millinocket area's economy

George Smith

The fat, colorful 15-inch trout took my fly, dived for the bottom of the river, and lay there shaking his head. My 5-weight fly rod bent double as I held on tight.

The trout could have been one of the big rainbow trout I caught on Alaskan rivers. It might have been one of the hefty brown trout I caught on Smith River in Montana. It could even have been one of the many brook trout I've caught in three trips to northern Quebec's Leaf River.

But it was actually a brook trout caught two weeks ago on Maine's East Branch of the Penobscot River, just north of Millinocket.

The Millinocket region is in an uproar over Roxanne Quimby's proposal for a national park on her lands between Baxter State Park and the East Branch of the Penobscot.

Left out of the debate -- so far -- is the most valuable part of the equation, the river, and its economic potential. The East Branch could be the artery that makes Quimby's dreams and the region's desperate economic needs flow together.

I'm spending a good part of this month exploring Quimby's lands and the East Branch from her cabin on Haskell Deadwater as a participant in her writers-in-residence program. In addition to exploring and fishing, I'm working on a collection of my favorite columns printed in this space over the last 20 years.

Ironically, one of the first columns I pull out of the box was a piece I wrote criticizing Quimby's national park idea.

I was once one of Quimby's harshest critics. Then she reached out to me and other critics to start a five-year collaborative effort that resulted in a number of gains for the people of the Millinocket region. She bargained with us in good faith and I came to appreciate her as a smart, savvy and sincere woman. She's been more than open to our ideas.

That's why I am so disappointed with the current effort by the Millinocket Town Council to adopt a resolution opposing a feasibility study of Quimby's national park proposal. It pits the Medway and East Millinocket councils -- currently considering resolutions favoring the study -- against the Millinocket Council.

The region can't afford this division. And I have a suggestion.

Let's study the feasibility of a more comprehensive plan for the land on both sides of the East Branch -- and the river itself -- and figure out how to turn those assets into an economic engine for the beleaguered region.

Quimby has offered to buy land east of the river to match the land she owns on the west side. She'd like to have a national park on the west side, managed for natural areas with only a single loop road and limited infrastructure. On the east side of the river would be a recreational area where uses including hunting and ATV riding would be allowed.

My plan would add a key component: the river that runs through it. And I have a good example of what the East Branch could be.

Maine native Joe Sowerby is a Montana guide and outfitter who offers five-day float/fish trips on the remote Smith River. The river is managed entirely for recreation with limited entry. Outfitters get some allocations and some go to the public. Rustic camping sites dot the river. The fishery is managed for big brown trout, although anglers can fish with both flies and lures.

Sowerby offers a first-class float trip. When you break camp every morning and begin floating and fishing, he sends one raft ahead with the gear. When you arrive at the next campground late in the afternoon, your tent is up, the dinner table is set on the riverbank, and cold beverages and hot hors d'oeurves await.

But get this: Sowerby charges $5,000 per person for the trip. No one guiding on the East Branch of the Penobscot makes $5,000 per season, never mind $5,000 per person. But they could.

The East Branch has spectacular features, a remote setting, nice campsites, and good fishing that could be turned into great fishing with improved management.

During your float trip, you could spend one day hiking to a remote pond full of native brook trout on the west side of the river, or enjoy a guided ATV ride on the east side of the river.

Let's make the river and the land surrounding it work for us. Instead of convening in late July in a hot stuffy town council chambers, Millinocket councilors should get into canoes in Mattagamon and float the East Branch.

For their economy, they should think big: Big trout. Big river. Big bucks. And bring your fly rods. I'll be the guy wading below Grand Pitch, catching fish.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmith maine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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