By Terry Tempest Williams, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
Let us imagine a monumental celebration on Aug. 25. Let us imagine President Barack Obama establishing the Maine Woods National Monument in full view of Mount Katahdin and the shimmering waters that flow from the headwaters of the Penobscot River, home to the Penobscot people. And let us remember on the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service on that particular day, that we the people are nothing without the American landscapes that shaped us.
Our national parks are breathing spaces, and never have we needed them more. Each time I enter a national park, I meet the miraculous. When I walked the land that Roxanne Quimby and her family want to donate for the enjoyment of all people for all time, it was no exception. I took off my shoes to walk half a mile on a seemingly endless moss cushion in the woods, an unforgettable experience for a desert dweller.
Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son, was our guide. We met at Baxter State Park. I was aware of the economic downturn of the mill towns in Maine, especially Millinocket and the controversy surrounding a new national park.
It’s a familiar story in the American West, especially coming from Utah where we have five national parks and four national monuments with 66.5 percent of our state belonging to the federal government (compared with 1.1 percent federally owned lands in Maine). Only instead of millworkers out of jobs, it’s those working in the coal mines or oil fields who are hurting by the drop in oil prices. The rallying cry from the opposition is predictable, jobs versus people. But it’s never that simple, and it negates the complexity of a changing world.
The question we must be asking now in communities across the United States is, how do we foster more diversified economies and create a just transition for towns once dominated by industry and now driven by tourism?
St. Clair drove us by the paper mill where the gates were closed with a tall chain link fence surrounding the mill in the process of demolition. We sat in our car in the parking lot with half a dozen other folks sitting in their cars watching the wrecking ball inflict injury upon injury upon the broken structure. Some of the former workers were standing outside, leaning against the fence with their hands tucked in the pockets of their jackets. There was a bite to the air.
“What else are we supposed to do?” one of the men said. “Better than sitting around at home drinking a beer and watching TV.”
St. Clair was sympathetic.
“I think a national park would breathe some new life into the community.” He paused. “But there’s resistance. I understand that.”
There is always resistance. In 1943, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, shortly after a new national monument was established to expand the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park, cowboy rebels staged a stampede of cattle let loose on the federal lands as an act of civil disobedience. With yips and hollers and hats raised high, they unleashed 550 yearling cows across the sagebrush flats, trampling everything in sight. It had all the theatrics of a spaghetti western.
Fifty years later, Cliff Hansen, one of the organizers, later to become governor of the state of Wyoming and a United States senator, said before he died as a man in his 80s, “I was on the wrong side of history. …Grand Teton National Park is one of the greatest natural heritages of Wyoming and the nation.”
Acadia National Park celebrates 100 years this month. It, too, is a great natural asset to the state of Maine, ranked one of the top 10 most popular national parks in the country. A hundred years later, we have the opportunity to create a sister national park to the north.
What can I say about the days my husband and I spent with St. Clair in the autumn walking, hiking, and paddling Katahdin’s woods and waters?
That it is every bit as magnificent as the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.
That it is every bit as sweeping in its kaleidoscopic carpet of colors and trees as the great valleys and tundra in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
That the broad slow-moving rivers are storied with America’s industrial drive for timber.
That Orin Falls is a holy place with boulders still and still moving in a clearing of grace that makes the sculptor Henry Moore’s work look derivative.
That Katahdin is as commanding a mountain as any I have seen in my life. Former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called it “a haunting memory” and described it as “a great hulk of land, a primordial creation” with “the pull of Katahdin like that of an old love … strong.” It was here in the presence of “Ktaadn” silhouetted by stars that I saw the galaxy Andromeda for the first time.
How can we not celebrate this immense embrace of the wild? I still have among my stack of national park maps, “MAINE WOODS,” issued decades ago as a magnificent prank by the folks at RESTORE. They not only showed us what was possible, but necessary. It is time to make this official.
If John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his son, Laurance, made the expansion of Grand Teton National Park possible to the full glory we experience today — then, Quimby and her son are surely their contemporary counterparts with vision and a generosity of spirit. I want to thank them.
As citizens gather to share their own visions at the hearings moderated by Sen. Angus King on Monday in both Millinocket and Orono with Director Jon Jarvis of the National Park Service as a witness, let us remember that America’s National Parks are not only our “best idea” but an “evolving idea” worthy of our imagination and support.
Terry Tempest Williams is a Utah-based writer and part-time Maine resident who recently completed a book on America’s national parks, “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.”