The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Four     Number One                           Late Winter 2000

Border Blockade

by Jim Freeman

I first met Hilton Hafford and Stacy Kelley in Bangor at an election night party for Pat Lamarche. Hilton and Stacy had recently been part of a group of loggers that blocked a border crossing in St. Pamphile Quebec, and Pat was the only gubernatorial candidate who was interested in finding out why. Pat called me and explained how incredible these 'guys" were and I had to meet them. I was immediately struck by their honest, humor and understanding of the problems in the north woods. We weren't able to talk very long because of the celebratory atmosphere that night, but we promised to stay in touch. In early February I called Hilton after hearing about a possible action. We discussed doing something while the legislature was in session, but timing, logistics, and expense seemed hard to put together on short notice.

Blockade by loggers, Native Forest Network and Earth First! at the St. Pamphile border crossing in October.

Hilton called me in early August and invited me to come up to Allagash and see the area for myself. Hilton had a tone of urgency in his voice and seemed to be frustrated that the loggers plight was falling on deaf ears. The Native Forest Network (NFN, our organization) and Earth First! usually have a northeast spring and fall rendezvous, so after a few phone calls we agreed to have the fall rendezvous in Allagash in the middle of September.

We arrived from all over New England on Friday September 17th and camped in a little park just outside of Allagash on the banks of the beautiful St. Johns river. It was the weekend before the annual moose hunt so we shared the park/campground with several moose hunters. There were 28 of us, and as in most places we stood out like a sore thumb. Usually at a rendezvous local people tend to stay away from us, but in Allagash the towns people were all smiles and you could feel excitement in the air. The only store in town said they would send any late arrivals to our campsite and we were welcome to leave cars in their parking lot. The camp site was actually just a loop off of a dirt road and just a few hundred yards from a North Maine Woods gate. Route 161 is the only paved road from Fort Kent to Allagash, and any dirt road off of the main road is gated, secured by the large landowners that control the north woods. Unless you work in the woods it costs $4.00 for day access and $7.00 per night to camp.

As we were setting up camp, one car after another drove down the "loop". Some stopped to say hello, others just slowed down, took a look at us and drove on. Hilton and Troy Jackson, another logger, soon showed up with a pickup full of ash slash wood that Niles and Leighton Kelley, more loggers, donated to give us plenty of firewood for the weekend. After dinner we hung out by the fire for hours telling stories and laughing. I couldn't help but feel privileged to be an devout environmentalist sitting around a campfire with a group of loggers talking about saving the Maine woods.

Saturday morning Hilton and Troy showed up to take us on field trips. Troy went with a large group to see local clearcuts while Hilton, Anne Peterman from NFN Burlington Vermont, Andrea De Francesco, and myself drove in Hilton's pickup the two plus hours to the border at St. Pamphile. Hilton's knowledge of the Maine woods is unbelievable, and the ride was full of stories of his lifetime in the woods. The land was mostly Irving's and Seven Island land company. One could easily tell when you drove on to Irving's land. It brought new meaning to the term "industrial forest", with clearcut after clearcut and some "replanting" of Black Spruce in a monoculture. The thing that struck me was that if this land was ever allowed to become a forest, it would take a couple of hundred years to recover. It just gave you this feeling of amazement that anyone could do something like this. In fifty miles I didn't see a tree over a hundred years old. Most everything left was under 20 years old and with the slow growth rate, will take forever to grow back.

At the border, Hilton pointed out the mill on the Canadian side within shouting distance of the customs station. He explained that the mill was state of the art, designed to process small trees, less than 10 inches at the butt. The Mabec mill was recently modernized to the tune of 10 million dollars with six million subsidized by the Canadian government. There is no way privately owned Maine mills can compete with something like that, and Mabec is only one of several Canadian mills just over the border. The ride back had a few side trips, more of the same, and for the three of us NFNer's a sort of stunned silence, thinking we had seen a lot of devastation in the Maine woods, but nothing of this magnitude. Back at the campsite we all compared horror stories and were more determined than ever to do something about what we saw.

We had an enjoyable night along the St. Johns and planned to come back in a couple of weeks to take the message to the border.

We arrived back in Allagash after dark on Saturday October 2nd to avoid being seen by too many people. We had a large hunting lodge donated to us that slept 30 or so folks. The lodge had several bunk beds, a nice kitchen area, and a shower with hot water. It was a rainy, cold weekend, so the little creature comfort provided by the lodge was very much appreciated. We kept a low profile Sunday and prepared for blockading the border crossing for a least a couple of days beginning on Monday morning. We knew that the authorities couldn't afford to let us block the border for too long, but not knowing for sure we had to be prepared.

We awoke at 2 a.m. Monday morning and everyone was up and dressed in a few minutes. Two students had prepped all the food for scrambled eggs and home fries, and after a solid breakfast we were on the road by 3 a.m. We met the loggers and some hearty members of the press corps at the now abandoned Allagash High School, and together with our three vans and the Coffeeman trailer, headed for the border. We previously had decided not to stop at the North Woods gate and by some strange miracle the gate was open as we sped towards St. Pamphile. It was snowing those big fluffy flakes and the two plus hour trek to the border had a few hairy moments, but even with just a couple of hours of sleep, everyone's eyes were as big as saucers.

We arrived at the border about quarter to five and already there were half a dozen pickups lined up on the Canadian side ready for their daily commute into Maine. The Mabec stud mill was in full operation so the noise and lights were enough of a distraction that we easily set up our 12' high X 14' wide blockade before anyone saw us. There was a gate just inside the border, before the customs house, which the border patrol opens at 5.00 a.m. each morning, today being no different. At 5:05 a.m. we closed the gate and announced that no loggers or logging trucks were going to cross the border today, and neither logger nor logging truck ever tried. A trailer loaded with cedar was parked on our side of the border and gave us a great place to hang our "Maine is on the Move" banner mocking Angus King's campaign slogan. Occasionally, a hunter drove to the gate, which we opened to allow them through. Some stopped to ask what we were doing and after a short explanation wished us luck and left. A few hunters complained about the poor hunting, blaming it on the clearcuts and herbiciding.

Rain joined the snow about 6:30 a.m., so we started a fire. We gathered dead branches and anything else we could gather on the ground until Niles and Leighton got out of their pick-up, grabbed their chainsaw, and walked a short distance into the woods. In the most memorable picture for me, Niles cut down a couple of dead trees and cut them into 2 foot chunks. Will grabbed a chunk and threw it to Leighton, who threw it to Steve then to Hilton, then to Shea, and so on until we had a big pile of wood next to the fire. It was a spontaneous gesture, yet the camaraderie of the loggers and students working together was a perfect fit. By 7:00 a.m. we had effectively blocked the border, hung a couple of banners, and had a big fire roaring to keep us warm and make hot coffee, tea, and soup for 50 people!

As the day dragged on, almost everybody gave an interview to one or another of the press. The Unity College students seemed to be everywhere, helping with whatever needed to be done. As an activist, I often hear complaints about students, and their lack of a political agenda. Not true with this group. They were with us from day one. They added lots of energy and creative ideas. This is tough work, especially operating in the unknown with little sleep, but the Unity students made the difference.

Maine State Police approach the blockade.

The press packed up about 2:30 in the afternoon so they could make their deadlines. We still had our cell phone and gave updates to other press people as far south as Boston. All during the day either the State Police or Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers would periodically drive through (we opened the gate for them each time). Within a half hour of the press departure, I noticed a State Police cruiser pulled crossways, blocking the road about a quarter of a mile up the hill on the Maine side of the border. Sure enough, from the customs station three more cruisers and two INS vehicles drove towards the gate. A sergeant asked to speak with me in private while another trooper in plain clothes went to talk to Hilton. Sergeant McPherson, after a bit of small talk, politely gave me three choices, after claiming that the road was private property and the land owners wanted us to leave. We could leave by crossing into Canada, we could be escorted back to Allagash, or we could be arrested for congregating on private property and trespassing.

After a group discussion we chose the trip to Allagash. Several of us were willing to be arrested, but with the State Police transport van at headquarters in Houlton four hours away, that meant it would be at least eight hours until we got to the State Police headquarters and the strain that would cause on everybody, including the police didn't make sense. We had proven our point and decided to save an arrest for another day.

The two hour drive with full police escort was hilarious. We were in great spirits, making fun of Irving's and Seven Island's "GREEN" forestry practices. How they get away with that is beyond me. About halfway to Allagash, Hilton driving just behind the lead cruiser, stopped his pick-up and thirty people dashed into the woods to pee. Even the police were laughing. The final moment came as we stopped at the North Woods gate. It seemed that the land owners wanted our names, addresses, $7.00 a piece for the gate fee and overnight camping. I told Sergeant McPherson to arrest us now because none of us were about to pay any fees. The Police met with the gate keepers, and after awhile McPherson told the gate keepers that he wasn't here to collect their fees and that the police were going off duty in fifteen minutes so they could collect their own fees. The gate dropped and we were on our way without further discussion. Exhausted but happy , and back at our donated lodge after what seemed like a month, we reflected on bringing new meaning to solidarity in the Maine woods.

Hilton Hafford addresses the crowd at rally in front of the Maine Dept. of Labor in November.

As a follow-up to the blockade, we held a rally in front of the Maine Department of Labor (DOL) November 1st, to protest the DOL's lack of support for Maine labor. The rally was attended by almost 70 people. We have pledged to support the loggers until we get some resolve about the labor crisis in the north woods.

FEN director Jonathan Carter talks with fellow protestors at rally outside Maine Dept. of Labor.

Jim Freeman is an Native Forest Network representative and lives on Verona Island.



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