By A.J. Higgins
Maine Public news story
The Trump administration has vowed to review some of the national monument designations carried out in the Obama years, which could include Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
Gov. Paul LePage says the monument, and its potential to become a national park, pose a real threat to Maine’s forest products industry. But some monument supporters in Millinocket, including local businesses, are fighting back.
Dan Corcoran says that a year ago, hours would sometimes pass before the phone would ring at his North Woods Real Estate Co. in Millinocket. But that was before President Barack Obama accepted more than 87,000 acres from Burt’s Bees philanthropist Roxanne Quimby as a national monument to be administered by the U.S. National Park Service.
Now Corcoran says the phone rings more, and he has had to hire three people to keep up with real estate inquiries.
“When the national monument was designated, everything changed — instead of us calling them, they were calling us,” he says. “Within two weeks, we started getting calls from brokers representing national retailers interested in locating in this area.”
But Republicans in Washington, eager to undo some of the Obama legacy, continue to push. And on a trip of the nation’s capital two weeks ago, LePage testified against the monument before the Federal Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.
In his remarks, LePage said that the tourism industry in Maine is largely confined to the south.
“The growth of the state of Maine is on the coast, and between May 31 and Labor Day, we will have 40 million visitors, but they will be to the coast,” he says. “Very few are going to be in the mosquito area.”
For some residents of Millinocket, the governor’s message to Congress fell flat. Monument supporters had been celebrating an uptick in economic activity, something that many business owners say they haven’t seen since the former Great Northern Paper shut its doors nine years ago.
“I was appalled, appalled to hear our governor describe the beautiful Katahdin region as a mosquito area,” says Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce President Gail Fanjoy. “He had nothing good to say about the Katahdin Woods and Waters.”
Fanjoy says LePage’s comments about the Millinocket area before a national audience shocked the chamber’s members. And it prompted local business owners to hold a press conference last week to let Maine and the rest of the nation know that many former opponents of the monument are now supporters, and that the once divided the communities in the area are coming together.
“Eight months after the establishment of the monument, the region has come together and is healing — it is ready to move forward to a new and prosperous future,” Fanjoy says. “The efforts of the federal and state government are counterproductive to our progress.”
John Ellis, whose family operates two markets in the region, is one local resident whose position on the monument has evolved. Ellis’ family lost its camp when Quimby purchased the land that would ultimately be given to the National Park Service.
He says he understands anyone in the area who had to forfeit a place they loved had a right to be bitter about the monument. But Ellis says, before he died, his late father urged his sons to resist ill feelings.
“I remember it distinctly, he said, ‘Boys it’s time to move on, it’s time move forward and embrace this opportunity for our community and go forward, we need to move beyond the past,’” he says.
Ellis and Corcoran acknowledge that there is still some entrenched opposition to the monument proposal that is now one week into a 60-day written comment period. They see it as an impediment to the future return of industry, and to traditional recreational uses such as hunting, fishing and snowmobiling. But opponents in Millinocket seem to be keeping a low profile as the new federal review of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument gets underway.
One man, who posted a “No Park” sign on his lawn, declined to talk about his position. Millinocket native Robert Frost, who hangs a pro-monument banner on his front porch, says opponents tend to keep to themselves.
“It’s a nit-pick group, a bunch of people who get together over coffee at their house or a restaurant and they’ll talk about it,” he says. “This community here, it’s hard to change. And they still think that in the back of their minds, that that mill is going to come back — and it’s not.”
John Hafford believes as more time passes, the monument’s critics will begin to see its true benefits. Hafford and his wife, Jessica Masse, run DesignLab, a Millinocket graphic design and marketing firm that is in the forefront of the pro-monument movement.
“People just want to move on,” Hafford says. “And they know, they’ve seen the traffic that happened last fall. They see the investment that’s happening. They see houses being bought up in the region everywhere, and people get it and also they see a bunch of people trying to be positive and, you know, that’s infectious.”
Maine’s monument is included with more than two dozen others on the federal review list. More than 2,100 people have so far offered written comments to the Department of the Interior.