By John Paradis
Daily Hampshire Gazette, op-ed
Later this month, my wife Denise and I will head north, where we often go when we want to get away from it all. We head to Maine.
Maine to most people is lobsters and seacoast resorts, Kennebunkport, Freeport, outlet stores, L.L. Bean, and the Casco Bay towns of Boothbay Harbor and Rockport. It’s also Acadia National Park with its Cadillac Mountain, the highest shorefront peak on the North Atlantic seaboard.
We especially love Mount Desert Island, where we will stay again and, in celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary, will also celebrate the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service.
But as long and impressive as the coastal area of Maine is, it is a comparatively small part of a state which is nearly as big as all of the other five New England states combined.
I know this because when I was a kid, my parents would drive non-stop from my grandmother’s house in Fort Kent on the Canadian border all the way to our home in Connecticut and it took nearly as long to get from Fort Kent to Augusta, the state capital in central Maine, as it did from Augusta to home.
Much of northern Maine, especially the areas around Moosehead Lake, the Rangeley Lakes, the Allagash River and around Baxter State Park, remains uninhabited wilderness. It is this non-coastal region that Mainers call the North Woods, the largest undeveloped and unprotected region east of the Rockies.
It has been at the center of a debate for as long as I can remember – a debate about economics and the environment that concerns finding the right balance between people living off the land and protecting it for future generations.
And there lies the rub. Enter the discussion: President Obama’s creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on Aug. 24 came one day before the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and one day after the Quimby family, founders of Burt’s Bees personal care products, donated a huge parcel of land to the United States.
The new monument, which will be managed by the National Park Service, protects approximately 87,500 acres, more than twice the size of Acadia, and will allow recreational activities while protecting natural resources, such as the east branch of the beautiful Penobscot River.
As someone who would gaze upon Mount Katahdin on yearly treks to northern Maine, the announcement was emotional and personal. I didn’t think I would see it in my lifetime.
The designation of the woods in the heart of the state as protected territory has been in the works for decades, following years of study and reviews by the park service. The new monument is paltry in size compared to other plans to establish a Maine Woods National Park of more than 3.2 million acres. Regardless, any move to federalize the woods has been extremely controversial among Mainers, who worry about government oversight of land that provides the state with its biggest industry – wood products.
Supporters say protecting the land from development removes it from the clutches of the timber industry, brings back a diversified forest and conserves varied species of wildlife, while giving visitors access to a mixed-used recreational area.
But critics have long said the move threatens their rights to fish and hunt where they please and intrudes into their lives and pine-scented heritage, which has involved logging since colonial times. Mainers, they say, do not need the federal government and out-of-state bureaucrats deciding what is best for Maine.
But such charges were also leveled against plans for the White Mountain National Forest, for Acadia, and even for Baxter State Park.
There’s a lot for our states and nation to take on when it comes to management of our scenic and historic wonders. It’s an incredibly challenging task – one tied to the 1916 federal legislation that charged our nation to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same and in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
That’s a pretty ambiguous statement. It has caused consternation for the 100 years of the park system’s existence and is something Mainers have always been concerned about.
As the park service itself says, “conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use.”
Should the parks be preserved as space, protected from development, set aside for the silent contemplation of nature? Or should parks be conserved by the federal government not only for recreational use by the public but for responsible use by industry for logging, mining and other purposes?
And if recreational use is allowed, what is allowed? Where do you draw the line? Is camping OK but not hang-gliding? How about music concerts? Buses with tourists?
Still, I would rather answer these questions and have the land protected than see it turned over to private interests.
The Maine I long for and travel to – and want my kids and their kids to forever enjoy – should be wild and free and preserved. That is something far more important than timber, subdivisions, bottled spring water or highways.
John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is a veterans’ outreach coordinator for VA New England Healthcare System.