By Sheridan Steele, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s recent visit to Maine to see firsthand our majestic landscapes is a good exercise of his role of chief steward of our nation’s national parks and monuments. But contemplating reduction or elimination of our public land is not.
The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is one of 27 protected public land sites under scrutiny by the Trump administration. Zinke came to our state to determine whether there was sufficient public engagement before its designation.
Because Zinke recently called for shrinking Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, I frankly am nervous about where this review may lead. This proposal is not only disappointing, but it is legally questionable since President Donald Trump does not have the authority to eliminate sections of national monuments established by previous presidents.
Earlier this month, I joined nearly 260 park service professionals in signing a letter from the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks to Zinke. We came together to advocate for the importance of protecting parks and public lands and to emphasize the role the Antiquities Act has played in building that legacy for present and future generations.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson used the Antiquities Act to protect Acadia as Sieur de Monts National Monument. Acadia National Park grew out of the monument and now brings millions of people Down East each year. In fact, Acadia generated some $305 million in visitor spending and supported more than 3,800 jobs in 2015 alone. The bottom line is that national monuments are no less important or deserving of protection than national parks, such as Acadia.
I understand the importance of public engagement in the management of our public resources. During the 12 years I was superintendent at Acadia, I valued civic engagement. So I was pleased that there were numerous robust conversations about protecting the land now designated as Katahdin Woods and Waters. The Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce and the Bangor Daily News supported the proposal. At one town hall, 400 positive comments — and only 12 negative — were received. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar conducted a large public meeting in Millinocket in 2011, and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis led another in Orono last year. Public engagement continued after the monument was designated, and it is a cornerstone of the next phase in its evolution.
The supporters of the monument were similarly creative when it came to financing the project. The land’s donor set aside an endowment of $20 million for operations and maintenance of the monument by the park service, and committed to raising another $20 million. At a time when the park service has an operations and maintenance backlog of $12 billion, this level of financial support at the local level is invaluable.
Zinke pledged to help reduce the maintenance backlog when he took the helm at the Department of the Interior. Unfortunately, the secretary is now an advocate for Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut the park service’s already sparse funding by 13 percent, or nearly $400 million. With 330 million people visiting our national parks last year and spending approximately $18.4 billion in communities surrounding the parks, reductions to park budgets could lead to reductions in visitors and visitor spending.
The drastic reduction of the park service budget and the attack on our public lands is not what we were expecting from our new secretary of the Interior. When people think of our vast publicly owned lands, I hope people remember Maine is indeed fortunate to have the spectacular quality of place that attracts people from all over the world.
National parks and national monuments become economic engines that improve local and regional business and produce new opportunities for many. Let’s work together to keep our public lands protected for generations today and tomorrow. Make our voices heard.
Sheridan Steele worked for the National Park Service for 38 years, including serving as superintendent of Acadia National Park. He is an executive council member for the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, an organization comprised of nearly 1,300 current and former park service employees.