By Richard Schmidt III, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
There is one thing the Katahdin region communities have become extremely familiar with over the past few decades: change. President Barack Obama’s designation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is the latest change. But, for the first time in at least a generation, we face a change that will lift up our communities, region and state instead of drag us down.
Like many of my friends, I grew up in the Katahdin region during the 1980s and 1990s, decades in which every year seemed to have fewer and fewer prospects. Our parents and grandparents told us stories about the way it had been. But our experience was different. We all recognized that what we had was the product of the economics of a single, economically powerful industry and the once great mill towns it had built. But year after year, what remained of those benefits began to fade. At first it was almost imperceptible, but in recent years the process has accelerated exponentially.
After attending college in Presque Isle and serving in the military, I came back to this region to raise a family and, if I could, make a positive difference. As a Patten selectmen, I’ve sat in many desperate budget meetings and lain awake countless nights wondering how on earth we could turn things around for my children and the communities and situation they will inherit.
It wasn’t long ago that our local school board voted on whether to close one of our schools in Stacyville, literally within rock throwing distance of the entrance road to the new national monument. Thankfully, it was voted down but the school district still is in transition. The new national monument will attract people to our region and help revitalize the local schools. A strong local school system will, in turn, help make the new national monument successful because we will have schools that people want to go to, not just have to go to.
We no longer need to collectively listen in desperation at our door for an opportunity — any opportunity — to knock. As a result of Obama’s proclamation designating the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, opportunity has just knocked — and knocked big.
The president and his administration deserve our thanks for acknowledging the beauty, culture and history of this place. He correctly noted in his proclamation that our corner of the world is scientifically, historically and ecologically worthy of recognition and permanent protection.
The president’s action was only possible because of the vision and generosity of Elliotsville Plantation Inc., which has been working for years to ensure the region around the East Branch of the Penobscot would not simply disappear into the hands of Wall Street developers. Elliotsville Plantation’s president, Lucas St. Clair, worked tirelessly for years, meeting with residents and stakeholders throughout the region and state to ensure this monument will protect activities and traditions we value in the Katahdin region. And Elliotsville Plantation is donating millions of dollars to help maintain Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
I’m deeply thankful for Elliotsville Plantation’s efforts and generosity to our region. They have provided us with something very tangible with which to work. I’m also thankful for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which played such a vital role in helping make this idea a reality.
With this opportunity comes great responsibility. Citizens and their elected leaders need to put aside their differences and come together with open minds to ensure that, like the land itself, we deserve this designation. Maine people have spoken loudly, clearly and repeatedly in support of this idea. Luckily, Obama heard us and acted, thoughtfully and decisively, within his authority. Now it’s up to us.
The time for debate has passed. I’ve looked forward to the day when Patten would have the opportunity to act as a gateway community, welcoming visitors, investors and new residents to our town. That time has come. To take true advantage of this opportunity, towns throughout the region need to work together on economic development to shape our region for everyone’s benefit.
Growing up, I learned that when someone gives you a gift, you say “thank you,” treat it with respect and take care of it, regardless of whether it was on your Christmas list. I know my peers in the region join me in thanking Obama and the Quimby and St. Clair family. Thank you for acknowledging our region, the land upon which our communities have depended and for the opportunity to make the most of both.
We look forward to it.
Richard H. Schmidt III is chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Patten.