Because of economic stress in the Katahdin region, not all those who need to be heard are still there.
By The Editorial Board
Portland Press Herald editorial
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is coming to Maine this week to visit the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, where he plans to paddle a canoe and talk with locals about whether they feel that they were sufficiently consulted about the new monument’s designation last year.
Katahdin Woods and Waters is on a list of national monuments being reviewed by the Trump administration for what would be a historic first: elimination of their permanent status as national treasures created under the 111-year-old Antiquities Act.
We trust that while Zinke is in Maine, he will hear from longtime fans of the idea of a monument, as well as former critics who have been won over and some who still oppose it. All should tell him about the extensive public process through which they were able to air their views before President Obama accepted the gift to the American people of 87,000 acres of forest from the family of businesswoman and philanthropist Roxanne Quimby.
We hope, though, Zinke will also take time to think about the people who are not there: the former residents who had to leave the Katahdin region to look for work, and the people who might have liked to move there but could not because of the lack of economic opportunity.
The creation of a North Woods national monument has as much to do with these people as it does with the people who are still around. If her only concern had been land conservation, Quimby’s family foundation could have left the land in private control and kept it in pristine condition.
But a monument that attracts visitors is a way to generate economic activity for the people of the region, helping the nearby towns grow again and prosper.
That’s why the people who don’t live in the region anymore, or those who don’t live there yet, also deserve to be heard. The loss of the Great Northern Paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket were just the latest jolts to the regional economy. For decades, mechanization in the forest products industry had been making jobs disappear. Globalization created competitors in low-labor-cost parts of the world, and the electronic information revolution has stifled demand for paper.
If Zinke had visited in 1960, he would have seen the two neighboring towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket with a combined population of 9,845. According to the 2010 census, the two towns total 6,194 people, a 37 percent decline in a single lifetime.
You don’t eliminate more than a third of a community without leaving behind a tremendous void.
It’s not just papermaking jobs that disappeared, but also jobs for teachers, nurses, car mechanics and retailers that left when the people left. Families were started somewhere else. Property values declined, making homeowners’ equity vanish.
For many of those who stayed, the best answer seemed to be a rebound of the forest products industry, and the state helped promote the mills, even paying $16 million in tax credits for investors who never really invested. That still may be the future: The forest is still there, and new products are under development that could create new opportunities for Maine manufacturing, but in the present, there is an economic opportunity in recreation and tourism.
People are already coming to visit the new national monument, and companies are already investing with an eye on providing services.
The Department of the Interior is accepting online public comments about the status of the monument until July 10. It may be the only way for Zinke to hear from the people who won’t be at the monument during his visit.