December 2, 2010

Eagle's nest puts bypass on hold

Disturbing the aerie is prohibited, leaving a long-planned highway project in Wiscasset up in the air.

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

An American bald eagle's nest in Edgecomb has derailed a solution for Wiscasset's traffic woes that was more than 50 years in the making.

The nest is in a tree in the middle of the proposed path for the Route 1 bypass. It was discovered this summer -- after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the route to carry traffic away from Wiscasset's Main Street, which becomes clogged in both directions during the tourist season.

Now, the corps has told Maine transportation officials to go back to the drawing board, throwing the future of the long-discussed project into question.

"We need to decide whether or not we should continue on with the process," said Kat Beaudoin, chief of planning for the Maine Department of Transportation.

The existence of the nest was reported by workers at the MDOT's maintenance lot in Edgecomb after the corps approved the bypass route, which has been under discussion since 1958.

The maintenance lot is next to the proposed route, and the workers had noticed a bald eagle in the area.

"They said, 'There is an eagle here. Does anyone know about that?'" said Michael Burns, the MDOT's manager for the midcoast region.

Wildlife biologists were dispatched, and they found the nest high in a tree. It is unclear how long the nest had been there, but biologists suspect it is new this year and is unused. The nest was probably built after earlier wildlife impact studies for the road project had been concluded.

Although bald eagles have returned from the brink of extinction and been removed from both federal and state endangered-species lists, their nests are still protected from disturbance under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, said Wende Mahaney, a biologist in the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service's Maine field office. The act requires a 660-foot buffer between a nest and any new development.

State transportation officials scrambled to find a solution, but found that any modifications created more adverse effects on sensitive natural resources and traffic safety.

Even though the road project is decades away from construction, Mahaney said, the Fisheries and Wildlife Service cannot issue a permit for the project under the terms of the act.

It's not even clear whether the nest will ever be used. Mahaney said bald eagles sometimes build alternative nests for backup. But the birds also may return to the same nest year after year. Eagles' nests are in use from late winter into August.

Mahaney said that as far as she knows, this is the first time an eagle's nest has affected a development project in Maine.

Ironically, the proposed bypass route was the one favored by the Army Corps of Engineers, and not the one favored by a local task force that met for more than a year to come up with an acceptable proposal.

Given the current fiscal climate, transportation officials say they don't know whether to go back to the regulatory process and propose one of the four remaining routes.

The bypass construction could cost $80 million to $100 million. Beaudoin, at the MDOT, said her agency had planned to spend the next six to eight years looking for federal money to start buying land for the project, and another decade to patch together enough funding to build it.

The department will meet with the task force and neighbors on Dec. 15. The location and time have yet to be determined. Officials will then make a recommendation to Gov.-elect Paul LePage and his new administration.

Some residents in the area said they were shocked by the latest development.

"I just don't know what the upshot is going to be, with all the millions of dollars that have already been put into this," said Norma Dreyfus, a member of the task force and vice president of the Friends of Coastal Preservation. 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: bquimby@pressherald.com

 

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