By Robert Lilieholm, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
As a forester, economist and researcher, I have spent 30 years of my professional life working with landowners, communities, students and businesses seeking to leverage their financial, natural and cultural resources to create a better future.
Given that background, since moving to Maine with my family in 2006, I have been concerned as the debate over the proposed Katahdin Woods and Waters National Park rages on.
What should be a great opportunity for an economically distressed region — a generous landowner willing to donate 150,000 acres for a new national park and national recreation area, along with a $40 million endowment to cover operation costs — instead has become a polarized debate tainted by mistrust and misinformation.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
Since 2006, the Penobscot region has witnessed the steady erosion of its pulp and paper sector. The loss of good-paying jobs is staggering, and the social and economic costs are amplified by the region’s lack of diversification — especially in our more remote areas.
Forestry has been and will continue to be an important part of our economy, but there is so much more that we can do to diversify and strengthen our communities, especially when it comes to building our recreation and tourism sector.
The challenges we face are not unique.
Indeed, communities around the globe are struggling with similar obstacles. Here in Maine, we really do have some unique advantages. But first, we need a regional vision for what’s possible. Only then can we identify, develop and market our strengths.
In short, we need a forward-looking vision for our region using the newly restored Penobscot River to link our coastal communities to Baxter State Park and interior Maine.
This “Bay-to-Baxter” corridor would leverage the hundreds of investments and improvements already underway by towns, groups and individuals, protecting and putting to work our unique quality of place as an asset for sustainable economic development. With the Bangor-Brewer metro region as its heart, this corridor includes Interstate 95, Bangor International Airport, the University of Maine, Eastern Maine Medical Center and much more.
Few regions can match these assets. But year after year we fail to take advantage of our obvious strengths through a unified, regional vision for cooperation and economic development. Nothing would stimulate this vision more than the proposed 75,000-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Park and 75,000-acre National Recreation Area. These new recreation areas instantly would attract national attention and raise awareness of the region.
The national park and recreation area proposal comes out of countless conversations with Maine people. Its modest size and protections for snowmobiling and hunting — along with a sizeable endowment — would make it a new model for public lands that everyone should be able to support.
Many say there’s nothing significant about Maine’s North Woods and that no one will come.
Similar concerns were raised in response to park proposals in other parts of the country, from Seward, Alaska, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to the communities of Moab, Virgin and Boulder in southern Utah.
All those communities questioned the benefits of new parks yet today thrive on the millions of visitors that come to experience what locals once took for granted. And many of these visitors end up staying, raising families and starting new businesses.
We can do the same here.
So far, the park debate has been hampered by limited information and a reluctance to consider new opportunities.
As just one example, on a recent student field trip through the Penobscot region, we met with community leaders, including a local economic development official who was skeptical of the Katahdin park proposal. Using Acadia National Park to make his point, he told students he had never been to Acadia and that the park’s annual visitation was just 20,000 people. In reality, more than 2 million people visit Acadia National Park each year, making it one of the most popular parks in the country.
Clearly, there’s much we can do to build a brighter future. And fortunately, each week, more and more folks are changing their minds, supporting the park proposal and reaching out to new opportunities.
Sadly, no single act will turn our region into an economic powerhouse overnight. But bit by bit and piece by piece, we can visualize and build a better future. In realizing that goal, a new national park and recreation area would be a milestone — creating new jobs, bringing new energy and vitality to the region and strengthening our economy in a way that builds on our outdoors heritage.
We have delayed long enough. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Robert J. Lilieholm is the E.L. Giddings Professor of Forest Policy at the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine.