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EDMUNDS, Maine — For the second time, federal officials have backed off closing a public boat ramp in Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, averting a possible showdown with Gov. Paul LePage and Washington County officials, including Sheriff Donnie Smith.
Smith and Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Commission, were adamant Wednesday that the boat launch would remain open and indicated they were prepared to defy the federal government. Gardner went so far as to say county officials would exert “an equal amount of force” to ensure access to the boat ramp for local commercial fishermen.
Also on Wednesday, members of Maine’s congressional delegation announced that the boat ramp would continue to remain open for unfettered access despite the ongoing federal shutdown.
The LePage administration, however, has not been formally notified of the federal government’s decision, according to Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary.
“I’d like to hear it from the Obama administration,” said Bennett, adding that LePage’s office was trying to contact federal officials.
In fact, the governor was still making plans to visit the boat landing on Thursday morning to call attention to the dispute, said Bennett.
Cobscook Bay State Park is located within Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge along U.S. Route 1. The boat ramp is not located within the gated facility of the state park although it is part of the state park. The boat landing is accessible by Edmunds Road, while the state park may be reached by a connector road.
Because the federal shutdown which started on Oct. 1 included the national refuge, officials with the U.S. Department of the Interior closed access to the state park and the boat ramp. Employees of the agency had been placing messages on vehicles parked at the boat ramp indicating the refuge was closed.
However, last week state and county officials announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is part of the Department of Interior, had agreed to allow access to the boat ramp although access to the state park would remain closed.
This week, the federal agency closed it again, placing temporary barricades at the entrance of the road leading to the boat ramp.
That prompted a salvo by LePage, who issued a statement Tuesday blasting the White House and announcing plans to visit the boat landing in protest.
Then on Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine and U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree announced in separate releases that U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials had agreed to not enforce the closure of the boat launch.
Later that day, LePage issued another statement about the brouhaha while taking potshots at Michaud, his Democratic adversary in next year’s race for governor.
“The state has not received notification from the Obama administration indicating that Edmunds Boat Launch is open,” said LePage. “I am calling on the [Obama] administration to ensure local working fishermen have access to this critical boat ramp. It is a lifeline for local working fishermen and it is a disgrace that the federal government is interfering with that.
“It appears that after my administration raised this issue on behalf of local fisherman, Congressman Michaud has announced federal agents will stop enforcing their barricade. There has been no official announcement that fishermen will not face legal ramifications if they cross this barricade. Mr. Michaud is not the president and he does not direct this federal department.”
Gardner, the county commissioner who lives in Edmunds Township where the ramp is located, said he moved the barriers aside on Tuesday to allow access to the boat launch.
Some fisherman already had moved them to get by, he said, but “I moved them a little bit more.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the barricades were overturned in the ditch, where they had apparently been tossed.
Gardner and Smith indicated they did not throw the barricades in the ditch, but both insisted Wednesday that the boat ramp would remain open — regardless of the action of federal officials.
“I assured him [Gardner] we will keep [the access] open, and we will keep it open,” said Smith, who called the decision by the federal government “ludicrous.”
Asked what would happen if federal officials returned to put the barricades back in place, Smith said, “If they try to barricade it, we’ll deal with it. … I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“Any attempt to shut it off will be met with an equal amount of force to keep it open,” declared Gardner. “Pretty straightforward.”
The county has a lease agreement with the federal government to operate the boat ramp, said Gardner, and it manages it jointly with the state.
“We have a lease. … It’s not subject to any government shutdown. … The feds have nothing to do with it. We are not in violation of our lease.”
A few dozen fisherman regularly use the boat ramp, according to Gardner, and some of them moor boats nearby, reaching them with skiffs launched at the boat ramp.
In his announcement that the Fish and Wildlife Service would not prohibit public access to the boat launch, Michaud said he was pleased with the decision and added that it was “critical that Congress act soon to end this unnecessary government shutdown.”
In response to the governor’s allegations, Ed Gilman, a spokesman for Michaud, said the congressman began receiving calls from constituents about the issue on Monday — not after LePage’s statement on Tuesday. Michaud’s office “immediately” contacted the Fish and Wildlife Service, said Gilman, and on Tuesday coordinated communication between the federal agency and the Maine Department of Marine Resources in an effort to resolve the dispute.