ST. FRANCIS, Maine — For years residents in northern Maine have enjoyed unlimited access to the fishing and camping opportunities at Third Pelletier Brook Lake on private land managed by North Maine Woods.
That all changed this summer when several of the Irving Woodlands-owned roads leading to the popular fishing spot were blocked with steel gates, largely in response to incidents of vandalism, according to the landowner organization’s executive director.
Some residents are questioning the move and have scheduled a meeting for 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, at the St. John Plantation town office to discuss those concerns with landowners and members of the Aroostook County delegation.
“Third Pelletier [Lake] is owned by Irving and according to our property lines it is within the North Maine Woods,” said Al Cowperthwaite, executive director of the North Maine Woods. “Prior to this year people could drive into it without having to go through a checkpoint.”
People who want to camp at the lake, Cowperthwaite said, were required to check in at a staffed North Maine Woods gate, obtain the appropriate permits and pay a fee before heading to the campsite.
“We did have a sign saying people needed a permit to camp there,” he said. “That has not been terribly effective.”
In addition, high school-age youths for years have been using the camping area as a spot to hold parties often involving underage drinking and incidents of vandalism, according to Cowperthwaite.
“We have a hard time keeping picnic tables there because they put them in a big pile and burn them,” Cowperthwaite said. “It’s things like that that have driven the change. … Moving the gates around so Third Pelletier [Lake] is now within the North Maine Woods [and] bringing this area under [our] management will provide a safe, clean camping experience for visitors.”
Residents such as Lezime “Blackie” Thibeault of St. John Plantation see it as an end to their traditional use of the woodlands.
“We have nothing against gates,” Thibeault said. “But now it looks like they are taking over.”
Among his concerns, he said, is loss of access to other popular fishing and hunting areas in addition to access by all-terrain vehicles as they are not permitted within North Maine Woods boundaries.
Cowperthwaite stressed his organization made sure officials were kept in the loop last spring when plans were unveiled to relocate some of the steel gates.
“He did talk to me way back last summer and told me what they were doing,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. “I called Irving [Woodlands] and told them it was not a good idea.”
Jackson said he hopes the meeting on the 28th will help answer questions and allay concerns over the new gates.
“A lot of us have been going in there for years and now we have to drive another five or six miles and pay to go through the North Maine Woods checkpoint,” he said. “For me, that seems to be a little bit of a slight against the people up here.”
As far as officials with Irving Woodlands are concerned, the company is committed to allowing access to its land.
“As part of the North Maine Woods, Irving was maintaining six gates on the land we own in [Aroostook] County,” Mary Keith, Irving Woodlands vice president of communications, said in an email Wednesday afternoon. “In the spring of this year, North Maine Woods publicly communicated the details regarding a reduction and repositioning of the gates on Irving land [and] three gates were to be removed and three gates were to be repositioned.”
Subsequently, and after conversations with Jackson and members of the community, Keith said it is apparent to her company that “repositioning of the gate near Pelletier Lake finds the balance between local recreational use for our neighbors near the lake and North Maine Woods access.”
Cowperthwaite pointed out that townships between St. Francis and Wallagrass that include several remote trout ponds such as Wallagrass Lake, Honeywell Lake, Wheelock Lake and McLean Lake remain open to free public access.