Last Thursday was a big day for the future of Maine’s North Woods.
In the afternoon, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Salazar addressed a crowd of about 300 at the high school auditorium in Millinocket. The topic was Roxanne Quimby’s proposal for a national park on the 70,000 acres she owns along the East Branch of the Penobscot River.
Out in the parking lot, before the meeting, the park opponents were holding signs and passing out stickers. They put on a real show of force.
In the auditorium, after Sec. Salazar arrived, the Millinocket Town officials, a local county commissioner and the local state senator continued the anti-park assault, with loud aggressive comments, including challenging Salazar with “Who invited you here?” (I later heard someone refer to them as “the rude boys.”)
Sec. Salazar took it all in stride. “I invited myself,” he said and proceeded to run a civilized discussion about the possibility of a feasibility study and a national park. Alternating supporting and opposing speakers, he ensured that both perspectives were well represented. After hearing from a number of folks supporting the feasibility study because they wanted more information about the impacts of the proposed park, he challenged the “rude boys” back: “What is it about getting more information that you don’t like?”
And to find out what the “silent majority” was thinking, at the end he called on three people who had not raised their hands to speak.
The Katahdin Region Chamber of Commerce and the Millinocket Downtown Revitalization Committee have both supported a feasibility study. Local business supporters had filled the first three rows with friendly faces, although only one business supporter spoke.
Coming out of that meeting, I thought, it was, perhaps, a draw between supporters and opponents, although the supporters definitely got the edge for civility.
But the evening was only beginning.
The Medway Selectmen, who had already endorsed a feasibility study, had scheduled a town meeting and referendum vote on the issue by all the town residents for 7:00 pm. Roxanne Quimby was present and the Moderator let both local residents and out-of-towners speak and ask questions.
The opponents to the park were again out in force; the local senator strode to the lectern to denounce the park idea and any feasibility study.
But many residents asked real questions and were apparently satisfied with the answers because when the question was called, supporters trounced the opponents 46 – 6. There was a palpable sense of deflation from the opponents, who quickly packed up their stickers, signs and clipboards and slunk out the door. Meanwhile, the supporters were pleased but trying to figure out what the next step is.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the Medway vote. This is the first time residents in a northern Maine community have voted to support a feasibility study for a national park. After decades during which the debate about a national park has been dominated and stifled by opponents, the supporters have finally made space for a reasoned discussion of the issue.
A vote for a feasibility study is not an endorsement of a national park. But it signals that, finally, the debate will take place based on facts, rather than fears and ideology. Stay tuned. The conversation is just beginning!
—by Cathy Johnson, NRCM Forests & Wildlife Director