By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff
Bangor Daily News news story
MILLINOCKET, Maine — Despite endorsing efforts to promote tourism around public lands, the blunt report from a Virginia economic development firm for Millinocket was silent on the largest possible project in line with that strategy: a North Woods national park.
The leading advocate for a national park doesn’t see the report as an endorsement of his plan, while the report’s author called it a “volatile issue” that didn’t factor into his controversial analysis for how Millinocket can grow its local economy.
In fact, said park proponent Lucas St. Clair, the depiction of the Millinocket community in the recent letter from CZB Associates of Alexandria was too harsh on local leaders struggling with tough issues.
“I thought that it was a challenging thing to read. The community in and around the Katahdin region is a place I love dearly, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for,” St. Clair said Thursday. “In some ways it sounded a bit harsh, and that was a bitter pill to swallow. Overall, it was somewhat enlightening to read.
“I don’t really know the [Town Council] members other than a few conversations, so it is hard for me to assess the job they are doing, but I do agree that the challenges the community is facing are really dire,” he said. “It is hard to think about beautifying your town when you are struggling to keep your schools open.”
As written by CZB President Charles Buki with blunt and occasionally upbraiding language, the report recommended that Millinocket increase taxes, beautify itself, consolidate schools, aggressively seek grants and create a regional economic development strategy based on open public land and tourism.
Until recent years, the town’s economy was based on the now dismantled paper mill, although it has had many tourist attractions — including scenic snowmobile trails — for decades.
Working for free in order to help the town and at the request of the council, Buki and CZB staff members visited Millinocket for two days last fall, met with councilors, residents and local business leaders, received 500 responses to “an extensive” survey, and compiled and reviewed statistical data on town economic and population trends before writing the report.
St. Clair said he had a “couple of conversations” with Buki as information was being gathered by CZB. He explained to Buki the national park initiative and supplied him with an economic analysis of the region done in conjunction with the national park initiative a few years ago.
“That was the extent of it,” St. Clair said.
He and national park initiative spokesman David Farmer said Buki’s report was too general to qualify as an endorsement. They doubted the letter would compel them to change their methods much, or necessarily garner more local support for the park.
“They talk about a change in the ownership split of land and of partnerships with the National Park Service,” Farmer said. “That could mean a lot of different things, and we have a very specific thing we are working on — the national park and recreation area plus an endowment fund.”
“It doesn’t change the focus of our work. We will remain committed to the park and recreation area through one-on-one meetings with people,” St. Clair said.
In 2011, entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby proposed donating by 2016 more than 70,000 acres to the federal government to become a national park and recreation area. St. Clair, her son, proposes a 75,000-acre park and a 75,000-acre multiuse recreation area east of Baxter State Park. Quimby and St. Clair also proposed creating a $20 million endowment and raising another $20 million to fund park maintenance. The park would create 400 to 1,000 jobs, St. Clair has said.
Several sporting and recreational groups and the political establishment of Maine, from its federal delegation, governor and state and county governments plus the Millinocket Town Council, have resisted the proposal.
Medway and Patten leaders, plus Katahdin region businesses and many environmental groups, have supported it. Previous national park efforts stretching back to the 1990s have failed to gain traction north of Augusta.
Buki said Thursday that he didn’t have the national park effort in mind when he wrote his letter. Nor is he familiar with the details of the proposal. But the concept of transforming privately owned land into a national park, that includes or touches the Katahdin region, Buki said, falls very much in line with a key element of his report — the idea of opening more land to public industrial or recreational use as a means of bolstering the area’s economy.
“From my point of view, this is a no-brainer. You have a Boston market that is four hours away, Acadia National Park and the last virgin forest in the lower 48 states,” Buki said. “If there was ever a candidate for why not to do it, this is it. This is a textbook definition of a no-brainer.”
Park opponents have said they believe a park would bring unwelcome federal authority into Maine, cramp the state’s forest products industries, create only low-paying jobs, and — despite St. Clair’s statements to the contrary — grow far beyond 75,000 acres.
St. Clair and Farmer welcome support from any of the Katahdin towns, but they find Millinocket particularly important.
“Millinocket, because of its location, amenities and number of people, is critical to the park and recreation area and would likely benefit from the economic expansion and new jobs that would come with a park and recreation area,” Farmer said.