The Price of Jewels

How an Open Pit Mining Project Will Force Maine to Evaluate its Economic Identity and Assess the Value of its Prized Game Fish

By Nick Miller

December 6, 2020
To cast a fly line over the mirrored surface of a Maine trout pond is nothing short of a privilege. That is to say, you can’t just drive up I-95 and catch a fish. The secrets held in remote ponds only flash under the surface, tucked away for those lucky few who have spent a lifetime in the Maine woods learning them, or who can pay one of these lucky few to guide them there.

An angler begins to understand the mystique of the brook trout only after much trial. The waters where they dwell are near no paved roads or airports, hotels or strip malls. The dedicated fisher has to give themselves over to the solitude and remoteness of the trout pond. Only when they’ve tried and failed many times will their line go taut, and then they might reel the trembling fish to the surface to take in its color and beauty.

When he has unhooked the trout and let it slip back into the depths, the angler’s heart pounding, he can then begin to know the soul of America’s rugged corner.

Fish and Industrial Development

Prior to their shutdowns, Great Northern Paper Company mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket, Maine provided jobs for 4,000–5,000 locals. According to the 2018 census, the entire population of Millinocket now sits at 4,269. The shuttered mills reflect a shrinking economy and a state searching for an identity, leaving Mainers grasping for something to call their own.

Paper was an industry built on local resources. The water gushing through the turbines seemed endless, as did the supply of white pine, hemlock, spruce, and fur trees.

But if there’s any silver lining to the slowing of the forestry industry, it’s that Maine residents have had the time to consider the environmental impact of large-scale clear cutting and dam building on fisheries. According the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, “Forestry practices such as dam and road construction…resulted in the degradation of brook trout habitat through erosion, siltation, and the loss of stream cover and habitat.”

The Penobscot River, an artery that drains a vast swath of Maine from North of Millinocket to the Penobscot bay, was once known for its Atlantic salmon migration. Also known as The President’s Salmon, the first fish caught each year since 1912 had been sent to the White House. President George H.W. Bush was the recipient of the last presidential salmon in 1992.

Depending on whom you ask, the brook trout, one of Maine’s other native Salmonid species, is the state’s crown jewel. Forced into near extinction in their native range, 97% of the remaining wild (un-stocked) Brook Trout fisheries in the lower 48 are found in Maine.

Even in Maine however, the decline of naturally reproducing trout populations has occurred as a result of industrial development. Known in the ecology community as a gauge of overall environmental health, these fish only occur naturally where waters are cold, clean, and untouched by industry. Dam construction and heavy logging often damage rivers beyond repair.

Symbolic as the paper mills were of Maine’s prosperity, the Atlantic salmon remains a bellwether of the environmental impact of industrial logging and paper operations. Officially listed as endangered in 2000, no sport or commercial fishery for the salmon exists any longer in Maine; a far cry from the historic annual runs of some 500,000 fish.

A New Player Enters

The complicated legacy of industrial logging and paper production continues to permeate the state’s collective conscience. While victories for conservation have preserved Maine as the brook trout fishing capitol of the Northeast, there are still those who pine for an economic engine in the face of poverty, even at the trout’s expense.

This is where Wolfden Resources Corporation and its Pickett Mountain mine proposal come in. The company purchased land near Patten, Maine in 2017 and established its intent to mine for copper, zinc, lead, silver, and gold. They began drilling core samples shortly after. Wolfden petitioned the Maine Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) to rezone over 500 acres of land in T6R6 WELS in Aroostook County.

The petition aims to reclassify the parcel from a General Management subdistrict to a Planned Development subdistrict, a hurdle that must be cleared before applying for a mining permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. LUPC is still reviewing the petition.

The potential to revive a rural industrial economy is not lost on Ron Little, President and CEO of Wolfden Resources. He told me the people of Patten and the surrounding area are “the kind of people you can train to become miners,” adding, “The woodcutters are just perfect characters to turn into miners. It’s a labor intensive job, and I think it’ll be a perfect fit for the community.”

He sees testing and rezoning as “steps to demonstrate that Maine is really open for business when it comes to mining.”

The Problem With Mines

As with the paper mills before it, the story of a mine is not complete without a chapter about environmental disaster.

A proclaimed outdoorsman himself, Little said, “this thing’s really designed so that no water goes back into the ground unless it’s the same quality as the groundwater, so there’s going to be absolutely no impact on any fish around there.”

Despite the company’s promise , the project has its detractors. Nick Bennett, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, has worked extensively to highlight the potentially disastrous environmental implications of the mine, particularly as they apply to fisheries.

Said Bennett in our November interview,

“There’s no way that they can treat their wastewater to background levels and discharge to groundwater. That’s just ridiculous. They’re proposing to put a mine in some of the best brook trout waters in the state. These are big recreational resources, and a lot of people depend on this area for a living.”

The allure of genetically pure brook trout is unique to Maine. According to Maine’s sporting camp owners and their clientele, it’s one of the state’s few resources that can be described as world class.

Pickett Mountain is located directly upstream of three ponds on Maine’s Heritage Brook Trout list. It’s also upstream of the Mattawamkeag River, home to abundant populations of trout and landlocked salmon, the genetically identical freshwater version of the Atlantic salmon.

Bill Bridgeo, City Manager of Augusta, Maine, penned a letter to LUPC in May of 2020 concerning Wolfden’s proposed rezoning application. An avid fisherman since his childhood in Aroostook County, Bridgeo’s letter asserts that the application “woefully misrepresents the quality of that fishery.”

He adds that, “Pickett Mount Stream flows directly into Mud Lake near the outlet of the lake which, in turn, is the headwater of the west branch of the Mattawamkeag River, which then flows into Duck Pond and, a mile or so later, into Rockabema Lake. All of these waters are teaming with native brook trout and landlocked salmon.”

Bridgeo isn’t the only fisheries advocate to approach LUPC. Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited, the Director of the Maine Brook Trout Project, also condemned the proposed application.

Said Reardon, “The West Branch Mattawamkeag is particularly rich in trout and salmon habitat. The entire West Branch Mattawamkeag, a tributary to the Mattawamkeag and eventually the Penobscot River, is included within designated Critical Habitat for federally endangered sea-run Atlantic salmon.”

Reardon is unequivocal in stating that “Any runoff or discharge from the mine site to surface or ground water will drain to the tributaries of the West Branch Mattawamkeag.”

Wolfden’s interpretation of the waters near the mine seems to refer to an entirely different fishery. This limited discussion appears as part of material submitted to LUPC:

“The proposed development is not adjacent to the shoreland of a lake. Lakes within a one-mile radius include Pickett Mountain Pond and within a 3-mile radius include Pleasant Lake and Mud Lake and several smaller ponds including Bear Mountain Pond, Tote Road Pond, Grass Pond, Duck Pond and Huntley Pond.

Pickett Mountain Pond, Pleasant Lake, Mud Lake Tote Road Pond and Grass Pond have been surveyed and were in general found to be shallow and muddy with uniform temperatures at all depths in summer months lacking desirable conditions for cold water species such as brook trout or salmon. The inlet and outlet streams however do provide habitat as spawning and nursery areas for trout.

As discussed in Appendix A Section B(3)(d) water management and treatment will preclude water quality impacts to these lakes and ponds and associated streams. The proposed mining activities will in no way impact recreational use of these lakes or use of the surrounding area.”

In a November interview for this piece, Little himself said, “I was actually hoping that the lakes around the mine had landlocked salmon. And, to my surprise, they’re pretty shallow. The brook trout are only tiny ones in the creeks, so I’m still trying to find a great fishing spot.”

In his letter to LUPC, Reardon pointed out, “Pleasant Lake, Mud Lake, and Grass Pond are designated as ‘State Heritage Fish Waters,’ indicating that they contain wild brook trout populations and have specific legislative policy to protect their unique brook trout resources.”

The Economics of Trout

While COVID-19 rips through urban areas along the eastern seaboard, Maine is experiencing a dramatic jump in home values and sales. City dwellers shocked by the pandemic are fleeing to the state because of its relative safety and quality of life. Home values have surged upwards by 17% in recent months in Maine, and its not because folks from away want to live in mill and mining towns. The state motto, “Maine: The Way Life Should Be,” has probably never been more apparent. Why not earn a New York salary from the peaceful solitude of a home in rural Maine?

How do brook trout contribute the Maine way of life?

Pleas from Bennett, Bridgeo, and Reardon are similar in their insistence that the fish are more than just exciting game species — they’re Maine’s lifeblood, a force of cultural and monetary value that can’t be priced out.

The mine issue represents a state divided in its vision for an economic future. At the heart of it lies the question: will we guide our state towards an outdoor tourism based economy, or will we sacrifice these resources to invite the return of industrial development?

One only needs to gaze on the decay surrounding shuttered paper mills to see what industrial decline left in its wake. The blue-collar ethos of rural Maine butts up against progressive environmental policies forcefully. Good trout fishing seems incidental when you’re trying to make a living in a depressed region.

But habitat preservation is about more than rich tourists from Boston and New York getting their fix of Maine wilderness. It has a direct link to Maine’s economy. 2019 data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis indicates that outdoor recreation makes up 4.2% of Maine’s Gross Domestic Product, which is twice as much as the national average.

Bennett isn’t underestimating the price of a jewel. “They are proposing to put this mine into some of the best brook trout fishing waters in the state of Maine,” he said. “Brook trout fishing is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.”

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reported that freshwater anglers spent $208,808,028 in 2013. The report notes that freshwater fishing “supported 3,330 jobs, providing more than $104.8 million in income.” Brook trout were the most commonly pursued species. A similar study from that year had the total number spent by freshwater anglers in Maine at $319.1 million. Commissioned by The Maine Office of Tourism, the study confirmed that Maine residents and of out-of-state fishermen favor brook trout.

A resurgence of families moving to the Pine Tree State should be an indicator of what resources remain truly valuable. The woods and waters of Maine are its identity, and they’re proving to be an economic boon that must be preserved if we hope to continue bringing in affluent homebuyers to buoy our tax base and diversify our local markets. There is no greater symbol of our thriving woods and waters than the speckled jewels swimming beneath the surface.

The brook trout is known as an indicator species in the world of ecology. As the brookies go, so does the environment. As the environment goes, so does the wellbeing of Maine. A green light for the Pickett Mountain Mine would mean more than a few fleeting low-wage jobs — it would mean carving the heart out of the last true wilderness in the east.