"A High Peaks National Wildlife Refuge could serve as an important place for people to come learn about and observe wildlife, and to have guaranteed public access to hunt, fish and recreate."
This map from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows an area of approximately 200,000 acres in western Maine under consideration for a national wildlife refuge. Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / The Maine Monitor

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Sally Stockwell is the director of conservation at Maine Audubon.

During the week of July 24 I had the opportunity — along with several others who live, work or play in the High Peaks region of western Maine — to talk with staff members from the offices of U.S. Rep. Jared Golden and U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King about a proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to explore the possibility of creating a new National Wildlife Refuge in the area. Each of us talked about why the region is so special to us and our user groups and why we support the process the Fish and Wildlife Service has spelled out, to share more information with and gather feedback from the public about a potential new refuge.

Imagine my surprise then when I opened the newspaper one week later to read that Collins, King and Golden had sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service calling for an end to this process. Before it has really even begun!  

This plea is not only premature, it is atypical and counter to the public process. Last month, Maine Audubon sent an email to our members and supporters letting them know the Fish and Wildlife Service was exploring the idea of creating this new wildlife refuge. We asked if they wanted to learn more or submit comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Hundreds took action and shared their thoughts, from “what a great idea — that area is very special to me and my family” to “this sounds interesting — where can I learn more about it?” to “thanks for bringing this to my attention, I’ve sent in comments.”

Our federal delegates’ letter says that we should stick with local or regional conservation efforts only, claiming the idea lacks local support. On the contrary, it appears that many people want to learn more and have already offered support.  

Why consider this proposal?  

First of all, the High Peaks region is of exceptional ecological value, made up of a diverse biogeography that extends from low-lying forests, wetlands, streams and lakes to high-elevation mountains with alpine vegetation. It is in the heart of the largest intact temperate forest in North America; contains high quality pond and stream habitat for eastern brook trout and Atlantic salmon; is well known for its moose and Canada lynx; and is part of the “baby bird factory” for forest birds in the Atlantic flyway. People come from all over the country to fish for trout, search for moose and catch a glimpse of the rare Bicknell’s thrush and blackpoll warbler that breed in the stunted subalpine forests of the area.

Second, while some lands and waters in the region have been protected through public fee acquisition (such as Mount Abraham and Perham Stream), most are held by private landowners with working forest conservation easements on them. None of those lands and waters are owned or managed by an agency or organization that is focused primarily on conserving wildlife and habitat. This presents a unique opportunity to add a different type of owner/manager to the mosaic of conserved lands in the region, bring new funds to the table and complement the great local and regional work already underway.

Third, the only lands that would become part of a new National Wildlife Refuge would be secured from willing landowners, either in fee or under easement. I recall when the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge was looking to expand in southern Maine. Initially landowners were very reluctant to sell to the Fish and Wildlife Service but over time, many changed their minds and were excited to be part of a growing network of protected salt marshes and adjacent uplands along the southern coast.

Let’s let the process play out, to ensure that all voices are heard, compromises — if needed — can be made and people and wildlife can benefit. A High Peaks National Wildlife Refuge could serve as an important place for people to come learn about and observe wildlife, and to have guaranteed public access to hunt, fish and recreate — all of which has the potential to support not just wildlife but local communities as well.