For much of the past decade, I have generally lambasted the Ellsworth city government for a decision many considered rash, or selfish, or foolhardy.
This morning, I’d like to step back a bit, tip my cap to the folks in Ellsworth, and give credit where it is due.
On Thursday, you may have heard, the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife stocked landlocked salmon into Ellsworth’s Branch Lake for the first time in 10 years.
After Hanson’s Landing closed to public use back in 1999, the state has steadfastly refused to stock fish in the lake, citing a department policy that makes perfect sense.
If there is not equitable access to a body of water, the DIF&W will not put fish (which are largely paid for by the sportsmen and women of the state) into it.
And while there was another boat ramp on Branch Lake, state officials didn’t consider it up to snuff.
“Not all size boats could make it up under [a] bridge [into the main basin of the lake]. That was the main thing,” explained assistant fisheries biologist Gregory Burr. “So we had anglers complaining, ‘If that’s the launch site down there, we’re not going to be able to get to the fish that we’ve paid for.’”
Ellsworth officials, however, were very protective of pristine Branch Lake. The water it held is the city’s drinking water. Invasive aquatic plants had begun making inroads in the state, and some feared one inattentive boater could transport water-clogging milfoil into the lake.
The state wanted to develop a new launch site. The city resisted efforts that some thought were heavy-handed.
At sportsman’s meetings, angry fishermen talked about the possibility of suing the city on behalf of all anglers, and forcing Ellsworth to allow a new ramp.
That never happened.
But eventually, something interesting did take place.
City officials worked their way through the issues, wrote new ordinances that they thought were necessary … and continued to talk with state officials from the Department of Conservation and the DIF&W.
Burr, the fisheries biologist, kept his eye on the future and kept looking for solutions, even though that future seemed quite dim at times.
And after a decade, both parties found common ground.
A ramp would be built, but it would be built where Ellsworth officials wanted it. Ellsworth would maintain control of it, and inspect boats that use it.
Fish were stocked.
Anglers will return.
And today, instead of focusing on a decade-long disagreement, we can celebrate the cooperation that led to the scene that unfolded Thursday afternoon.
Greg Burr, in his waders, stood in the waters of Branch Lake. Ellsworth city councilors Gary Fortier and John Moore reached into the proffered buckets, grabbed landlocked salmon, and released them into the lake.
“It’s symbolic of the efforts of a lot of people,” Moore said. “Ultimately, I think our mutual feeling on the council is we understood how incredibly important it is to maintain the viability of this lake as our drinking supply. I think we are convinced that this boat launch and restocking and use of the lake by fishermen is acceptable and can coexist with our needs to keep the lake pure.”
Fortier said that for the past 10 years, he has read the columns of outdoor writers who took the city to task.
“I think [you and others] kept reminding us of it, that this was the people’s lake, ‘how dare you keep us off it,’” Fortier said. “We understood that, and the number one priority was protecting water quality.”
Is the solution perfect? Probably not.
There are likely some who live on the lake who had no problem with the fact that angler use of their home water is half as high as it was 10 years ago.
And there are some who will say that the state’s concession — building a ramp in a spot where the prevailing winds are not optimal for launching a boat — was a bad idea. Ice damage is also a concern that the state had on a lee-shore launch site.
But Burr said the DOC will address the summer wind concerns with wave attenuation devices, so that boaters can safely launch and remove their craft.
Burr has fought for the state’s anglers at Branch Lake for the past decade. He has heard every proposal, every counter-proposal, and admits he sometimes thought there was no solution to be found.
“We worked hard,” he said, referring to himself, and city officials, and his state colleagues at the DOC. “This is a victory for the people of the state of Maine, certainly a victory for the people in these communities. It’s been a team effort here. Ellsworth is going to get what they want. We’re going to get what we want. Everybody wins.”
One thing nobody on either side of equation ever disagreed on is worth mentioning: Branch Lake is a special place that deserves special attention.
Fortier, the city councilor, has always known that. He grew up on The Mill Pond, which is part of Branch Lake.
On Thursday, he grinned when he was asked how big a deal the ceremonial stocking of fish was.
“I’m here instead of working for a living, so I’m excited,” Fortier said. “I haven’t had a fishing license for 35 years, but you know, next year I think I’m gonna buy one and go fishing.”