With more anger than reason, the governor argues against the designation before a congressional committee.
by Bill Nemitz
Portland Press Herald column
She couldn’t live any farther from Maine. But U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, sure has a clear view of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
“This is a very unusual situation,” Hanabusa observed Tuesday from Capitol Hill. “Because first of all, let’s all be clear: The 87,500 acres is originally private. In other words, your family foundation is who purchased those lands, correct?”
“That’s right,” replied Lucas St. Clair, representing the Quimby Foundation.
“So, unless I’m mistaken,” Hanabusa continued, “I don’t believe Maine has a law … that would somehow allow Maine to tell you what to do with your lands.”
“It does not,” replied St. Clair.
“Because if you were to still hold it, you could deny access completely, isn’t that correct?” asked the congresswoman.
“We could,” St. Clair agreed.
And that, in a nutshell, captures the utter absurdity of the campaign led by Gov. Paul LePage to undo President Barack Obama’s decision eight months ago to set aside the Katahdin tract for all of posterity.
One last time, let’s review the obvious:
Nobody stole the land.
It was bought at fair market value, St. Clair later noted, “from the timber industry, from willing sellers, and we were willing buyers.”
The Quimby Foundation, as St. Clair testified, “worked long and hard to put it into the public trust.”
And nobody wants to close off the land.
To the contrary, St. Clair told the Federal Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee, it’s the only national monument that allows hunting and snowmobiling – a gracious nod to those in northern Maine who weave such activities into the fabric of their lives.
From there, it only gets better. St. Clair explained to the committee how the Quimby Foundation, created by his mother, Roxanne Quimby, has already spent between $8 million and $10 million “rebuilding roads, widening roads, building bridges, building viewpoints, bathrooms, campgrounds, boat launches, et cetera, to make it available for the public.”
What’s more, the foundation has endowed the monument with $40 million for future upkeep because, St. Clair explained, “we’ve seen the backlog of maintenance in other national parks and recognize that they needed to be supported both by the federal government, but also by the private sector.”
So why, with all the challenges facing this state, this country, this entire planet, are we still having this discussion?
Because Gov. LePage’s perpetual anger requires constant fueling, that’s why.
He’s the grumpy old neighbor screaming at the kids to stay out of his backyard – only it’s not really his yard and the kids are full-grown tourists with adventure in their souls and money in their wallets.
This week’s long-anticipated showdown stems from President Trump’s recently ordered review of 26 monuments established by Obama and other past presidents. Ironically, Kathadin is not on the list because it’s too small.
Nevertheless, for two-and-a-half hours, this politically charged piece of real estate occupied center stage. Simultaneously, lawmakers saw Maine at its best and its worst.
In one chair sat St. Clair, poised, polished and well-prepared to fend off tiresome attacks on what by any reasonable measure represents the height of forward-looking philanthropy.
Two chairs down sat LePage, sullen, sour and scornful of any suggestion that northern Maine’s future might hinge on something other than its free-falling pulp-and-paper industry.
During one such myopic moment, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, asked Maine’s governor, “What percentage of your state’s income is based on tourism?”
“I … couldn’t tell you that, sir,” replied LePage. “Between tourism and pulp-and-paper, I’d say tourism probably has a slight edge.”
A slight edge? Try telling that to the paperworkers no longer making paper – or the hoteliers and restaurateurs desperate for more chambermaids and wait staff.
Last month, the state reported that Maine tourism industry revenues grew 6 percent, to $6 billion in 2016 – the fourth annual uptick in a row.
By contrast, the Maine Pulp & Paper Association announced in January that it was going kaput after 50 years. Its stated reason: “As the number of Maine pulp and paper mills have decreased, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain sufficient membership.”
Yet LePage insisted to the committee that the paper industry is poised for “big growth” in tissue, paper towels and wax paper and “I think we should be in the forefront of it.”
Let’s accept, despite all those shuttered mills, LePage’s prediction of the second coming of Paul Bunyan. How does the relatively minuscule Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument stand in the way of that?
It doesn’t. It won’t. It is, to borrow from Maine’s seafood industry, a red herring.
Back to St. Clair.
“This is not a zero-sum game” pitting paper against tourism, he calmly testified. “This is a region that has lost 5,000 jobs in the paper industry in the last three decades. And so attention needs to be brought to the region, both for new forest-products industry jobs and for tourism.”
Back to LePage, who swatted away the increased tourism argument by dividing Maine into two regions – the tourist-clogged coast and the “mosquito area.”
Two problems here.
First, the notion that Maine mosquitoes all live inland is an insult to Maine’s ubiquitous coastal blood suckers.
Second, LePage earlier had testified that Baxter State Park, cheek-to-jowl with the new Katahdin Monument, “is one of the greatest wilderness parks east of the Rocky Mountains.”
Tell us, Governor, how can that be if Baxter sits smack dab in the middle of Maine’s “mosquito area?”
The simple truth here is that the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, controversial as it may have been in recent years, is one of the best things to happen to northern Maine in a long time.
As St. Clair testified and as multiple independent reports in recent months have shown, good things are already sprouting from the monument in the form of increased visitors, rising real estate values and business growth.
At the same time, polling now shows strong support for the monument both statewide and in northern Maine.
In short, it’s working. And the sooner LePage accepts that and moves on, the better for all.
Wrapping up her questioning of St. Clair on Tuesday, Rep. Hanabusa of Hawaii spoke about how, in her tiny state, private-public collaboration is the key to preserving “legacy lands” for generations to come.
And so, she told St. Clair, “I wanted to end by saying thank you.”
As should we all.