EDMUNDS, Maine — Federal officials have backed away from closing a public boat ramp used by commercial fishermen after state lawmakers and officials raised a hue and cry, but a local state park remained closed Friday.
Cobscook Bay State Park is located within Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge along U.S. Route 1. The refuge also contains a boat ramp owned by Washington County. The boat ramp is accessible by Edmunds Road while the state park may be reached by a connector road.
Because the government shutdown included the national refuge, federal officials closed access to the state park and the boat ramp. Employees of the federal Department of the Interior had been placing messages on vehicles parked at the boat ramp indicating the refuge was closed.
Thanks to the efforts of state Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, and Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, federal officials have backed off their decision to prohibit access to the boat ramp, according to Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Commission.
“It was a head scratcher for me,” Gardner said at the outset of Thursday’s commission meeting, as to why federal officials would want to prohibit access to the boat ramp by working fishermen.
“So the fishermen will be glad for that,” he added.
Officials with both the state Department of Marine Resources and the Division of Parks and Public Lands confirmed Friday that federal officials now were allowing access to the boat ramp, but not to the state park.
Gardner directed Dean Preston, who heads the county’s office of unorganized territories, to research agreements with the federal government related to the boat ramp in case the issue “rears its ugly head” again.
The county built the access road to the boat ramp, the parking lot, and the boat ramp, noted Preston.
“From our standpoint, we’d be hard pressed” to understand why the federal government would close the area off to commercial fishermen, said Preston.
A notice on the website of the Division of Parks and Public Lands still indicated on Friday that Cobscook Bay State Park was closed due to the federal government shutdown.
“This is the type of punitive, arbitrary decision that defies logic and common sense. Maine people are pragmatic, hardworking problem solvers that expect leaders to work together to find solutions even when they disagree,” said Gov. Paul LePage in a release on Friday. “Here we have an opportunity to reopen a state park that never should have been closed in the first place. It is run, staffed and managed by the State of Maine with the tax dollars of Maine citizens.”
The state maintains and operates the park under a management agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, explained John Bott, director of special projects and communications for the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The park employs two-year round workers and two seasonal workers who have been diverted to other tasks on other state facilities in the area, he said.
Bill Kolodnicki, manager of the federal wildlife refuge, referred questions to a regional office in Massachusetts. “Currently, I’m on furlough with the federal government,” he said.
Asked how much money the federal government was saving by keeping the state park closed, Kolodnicki said, “I really couldn’t tell you.”
Because of personal injury lawsuits arising on federal property, agencies must have adequate staff at their facilities, added Kolodnicki. The furloughing of federal employees accordingly necessitates closing of federal facilities, he suggested.
“There is no reason for this park to be closed, particularly this time of year,” Burns said in a news release issued by the Maine State Republican Office on Thursday. “Visitors from all over the country come here in the fall to see the foliage and sample life in this beautiful part of the state, and they’re being deprived of that because of what’s happening thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C. It costs the federal government nothing to keep this park open.”
“Our local communities are being punished due to chaos at the federal level,” said Lockman in the GOP news release. “Closing a state-run boat ramp in rural Maine to block commercial fishermen who depend on its access for their livelihood is petty and vindictive.”
Lockman added that he was “appalled” to learn that the action by federal officials prevented elementary school cross-country runners from passing through the park for an annual race. “This is unacceptable. I would demand that our kids be allowed in the state park next week for their regional championship.”
The boat ramp is “vitally important” to fishermen this time of year, said Burns. “They are trying to complete their shellfish harvests before the cold weather arrives and need access to the flats. These people are trying to make a living and are being denied that opportunity through no fault of their own.”