By Bucky Owen, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
I can envision a small national monument east of Baxter State Park centered around three rivers: the East Branch of the Penobscot, the Seboeis and the Wassataquoik, all special places in Maine. The name is one I came up with, but the idea of a small national monument, be it “Three Rivers” or “North Woods,” has evolved over time as the region has had discussions about what a monument might look like and mean for the area.
When Roxanne Quimby first proposed a 3 million acre national park for Maine, I was vehemently opposed to it. I thought it was too big, would bring too much federal intervention and would have too great an impact on the forest products industry. At the time, I was a board member of The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Society of Maine, and we advocated for large-scale conservation easements that limited development, preserved traditional uses and encouraged long-term sustainable forestry.
Despite my initial opposition to a big park, it was clear that the East Branch watershed is special and needs protection. When I became commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, I automatically became a member of the Baxter State Park Authority, the governing board for the park. We had acquisition funds available and one of our first actions was to look at the land between the park and the East Branch, a natural boundary for the Baxter, but there were no willing sellers. Subsequently, the land to the east has changed hands several times, with Quimby eventually purchasing much of it through a foundation called Elliotsville Plantation Inc. The lands are now effectively preserved. In fact, Gov. Percival Baxter wanted to extend Baxter to the east to encompass Katahdin Lake and the Wassataquoik Valley but was unable to purchase the land. His vision is now partially completed.
I have had several conversations with Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son, who is now leading her land conservation efforts. St. Clair loves to fish and hunt, believes in the traditional uses of Maine’s forestlands, supports certified forestry and is sensitive to the economic needs of the Katahdin region. He is passionate about the land and believable about his vision for a small, roughly 75,000 acre national monument to the east of and contiguous with Baxter and an adjacent recreation area.
Such a monument would complement Baxter, protect key resources, enhance economic development and preserve traditional uses throughout much of the area. It would be a combination of protected areas in a matrix of multiple use areas. Working cooperatively with Baxter State Park, visitors could hike into Baxter along the Wassataquoik Valley to Katahdin Lake or Russell Pond or explore day hikes into the east side of Baxter. They could canoe and fish the numerous waterways, hike to special locations outside of Baxter, stay at campgrounds or be catered at an iconic Maine sporting camp, enjoy guided hunts in the fall and cross-country skiing or snowmobiling in the winter.
The more I think about it, the more I believe it can work. A monument could do all this while also supporting the needs of the nearby forest industries. Designed carefully and packaged accordingly, I believe folks from away will come and that the region would gain much needed economic diversity.
An economic study of a proposed national park in this area indicated it could create hundreds of jobs. Businesses in Patten, Shin Pond, Medway, Millinocket and East Millinocket would all benefit. From an economic standpoint, the status quo is not an option, and an earlier BDN editorial asked if not a park, then what?
Meetings held by Sen. Angus King and even Rep. Bruce Poliquin elicited overwhelming support for a national monument east of Baxter. The time for designation is now, coincident with the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. Let’s take advantage of this wonderful opportunity.
Bucky Owen is an emeritus professor in the wildlife ecology department at the University of Maine. He also is a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.