By Steve Wight
Sun Journal op-ed
Traveling around Maine, I work with people who are concerned about how to bring jobs and economic prosperity to the rural villages of western Maine and the Katahdin region to the north.
For 38 years, I owned and operated, with my wife, Peggy, the Sunday River Inn and Cross Country Ski Center in Newry. Now retired as an innkeeper and recreation manager, I am happy to share a few insights I have picked up along the way about the state’s economy and what attracts visitors.
In terms of bringing economic resilience back to the Katahdin region, I can’t think of a better strategy than welcoming the proposed Maine Woods National Monument. It will serve as a solid foundation around which communities in the Katahdin region wi0 ll build the area into a year-round vacation mecca.
In fact, given the proposed gift of land and funds to help the monument flourish, it’s a truly remarkable opportunity for neighboring communities to benefit and bring sustainable jobs to their towns and villages.
When I left the Air Force and moved to Maine to begin my innkeeping career in 1971, I became deeply involved as a volunteer in community, regional and state nonprofit organizations that focused on youth, education, recreation and community development. I have served as a Registered Maine Guide since 1987, specializing in teaching families and youth how to enjoy the wonderful outdoor resources we have in our state.
The tie that binds all of these issues together is recreational access to land, particularly the state’s scarce public lands, and the ability of those lands to draw visitors.
Through all my professional and personal life, I have benefited from the public lands that are managed on the public’s behalf by local, state or national governments for the enjoyment of all. My home for the past 45 years has been close to the White Mountain National Forest, Grafton Notch State Park and Maine public lands in the Grafton Notch area purchased with federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grants. LWCF takes a small slice of royalties from offshore oil drilling in public waters and makes those funds available for parks and conservation.
When I have travelled to the western states with my family, we have always included national parks, forests and wildlife refuges on our itinerary. I remember a conversation with a business owner outside Grand Teton National Park. When I told him that Maine was working toward a new national park for the Katahdin region and that the proposal faced some opposition, he said, “What!? How do they expect to get people to come?”
Exactly right. National parks and monuments are surefire attractions for the vacationing public that bring in dollars, jobs and a more stable economy to rural areas throughout the country.
These days, my nonprofit work is still concentrated on educating people about enjoying the Maine woods and waters safely. However, with the economic realities of losses of jobs for those who live in those woods due to changes in technologies throughout the world, I am extremely concerned about community resiliency as well.
I have friends who say that a monument or park is not the wilderness they seek. However, the opportunity before us is to attract families, groups and individuals from all over the world, whether they are seasoned outdoor enthusiasts, wilderness seekers, sightseers or total Northwoods neophytes. They will come to this state to discover the unique “Maine Woods Experience” in a way that speaks to each visitor personally. Maine has outdoor traditions and a unique history that residents are proud to share. We can give visitors who know nothing about the joys of the Maine woods a chance to learn about and fall in love with these great outdoor places — and spend vacation dollars here while doing so.
This really is a “seize the day” kind of opportunity for the entire region. The public can help bring the message to President Obama and the Maine Congressional Delegation: Yes — we want a Maine Woods National Monument.
Let our voices be heard today.
Steve Wight is former operator and innkeeper at the Sunday River Inn and Cross Country Ski Center. He served for 34 years as a selectman for the town of Newry and 23 years as a commissioner on the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission, eight of those years by the appointment of then Gov. Angus King.