By Richard Schmidt, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
Last week, I was sitting behind Gov. Paul LePage when he testified at the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing featuring the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Our governor’s representation of inland, rural, and northern Maine as nothing more than a clear-cut, mosquito-infested wasteland that isn’t worth visiting was an offensive shock to Mainers. But the governor says a lot of surprising things.
LePage asserted the monument was created without sufficient public input and despite opposition by, “most Mainers.” Presumably he did this because it’s the only way he could convince Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to include the Maine monument in the review ordered by President Donald Trump’s recent executive order.
However, almost a year ago, Rep. Bruce Poliquin invited Rep. Rob Bishop, leader of the small fringe “Anti-Parks Caucus,” which actually exists despite the fact that 95 percent of Americans support our national parks, to host a “ field hearing” in East Millinocket. But Bishop’s witness list did not include locals. We weren’t allowed to speak until the congressmen from Utah and Arkansas and two lobbyists from Augusta had made their speeches.
When the public was finally allowed to speak, 48 of us told Poliquin and Bishop, to their faces, that we supported the monument. Only 12 opposed it. When I spoke, I asked everyone in the room who supported the monument to stand up. I watched Poliquin turn in his seat and see for himself how overwhelming the support was.\
And it’s a matter of public record -– or should be. That field hearing and the public meeting that followed were recorded. I’ve been trying to get a copy of that video from Poliquin’s office for a year. LePage wouldn’t know any of this however because, though he testified, he hurried out before any of us locals could speak.
Additionally, Sen. Angus King and then-National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis held public meetings in the region and Orono, where more than 1,000 people showed up to support the monument. Multiple polls taken throughout 2015 and 2016 showed the majority of Mainers supported the idea, including 67 percent in Poliquin’s district. A poll conducted after the establishment of the monument found that support had risen to 72 percent, again with two-thirds of the Second Congressional District supporting it.
For years before the designation there were votes in local towns, letters to the editor, news articles, 13,000 supportive petition signatures delivered to the delegation, and letters of support from the president of the Penobscot Nation, Maine businesses, municipalities, and trade groups.
But LePage also testified about what happened after the designation saying that there has been “no economic benefit,” and that he didn’t expect there would be any, “in my lifetime.”
The governor hasn’t visited the monument nor, to my knowledge, has he met with local business owners, though we’ve invited him multiple times. I tried again in D.C. leaving the hearing room but he laughed and left.
The BDN and the Press Herald have been full of articles and letters from people who actually live here, all describing the positive change we’ve seen in just the eight months since the designation. Long-vacant motels have been purchased with plans for redesign, sporting goods stores are seeing increased traffic, local businesses are expanding, snowmobile numbers were up this winter, and lodges and campgrounds are reporting record reservation numbers. LePage has access to real estate data showing more than a dozen homes in the Millinocket area sold in September 2016, after none were sold the previous September, meaning realtors, like other businesses, are hiring.
Born and raised here, I’ll admit, I’m biased. The establishment of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument proved I’m right. But I’d never disparage the coast, western mountains, or rolling fields of the County. We’re all Maine and, mosquitoes not withstanding (I hear they even have some at the coast), we all have unique things to offer.
Refusing to recognize the monument’s positive impact on our region is one thing. But trying to undermine those benefits is unacceptable. In light of the governor’s harmful statements, Poliquin must finally stand up, join the rest of Maine’s congressional delegation, publicly defend the monument, and ensure KWW is protected forever.
Richard Schmidt is a selectman in Patten.