By David Farmer
Bangor Daily News column
WASHINGTON – Gov. Paul LePage is racking up the frequent flyer miles with his recent spate of visits to Washington, D.C.
I hope he earns a free upgrade or a ticket someplace nice because he’s certainly not doing himself – or our state – any favors with his recent travels.
On Tuesday, LePage testified before the Federal Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee. His stated purpose was to educate the committee about the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which was created last year by President Barack Obama.
With a friendly majority including a number of Tea Party blusterers who could give even LePage a run for his money, it should have been an easy way to grab a few friendly headlines.
It wasn’t. LePage was poorly prepared, managed to mangle even his small list of pre-approved talking points and largely embarrassed himself.
While the governor denies it, there’s no question in my mind that his trips to Washington are an ongoing audition for a job in the Trump administration. Even if anyone’s paying attention to him, I don’t think he’s going to get a call back.
LePage bungled basic facts about the state, while managing to insult the Katahdin region, disregard community leaders who were in the audience watching his performance and even bad mouth Acadia National Park, one of the most visited and beautiful national parks in the country.
Under questioning from the committee, LePage was unable to say how big the tourism industry is in the state.
For the record, in 2016 tourism generated $6 billion in spending and supported 106,000 jobs, or about one out of every six jobs in the state.
According to information presented at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism – apparently the governor wasn’t paying attention – the total economic impact of tourism was $9 billion and tourists paid nearly $600 million in state taxes.
Despite shedding crocodile tears for the maintenance backlog at Acadia National Park, the governor didn’t know how big it is or much about its economic impact on the region and the state or it’s popularity.
Numbers that big are worth remembering.
Acadia is 35,332 acres, plus another 12,416 acres that are privately owned and under a conservation easement managed by the National Park Service.
According to the National Park Service, Acadia generated $333 million in total economic benefits to the region and state and supported 4,200 jobs in 2016. Visitors spent a whopping $274 million in the region.
The park welcomed more than 3.3 million visits last year.
In fact, the pre-approved talking point that the governor repeated – over and over again – was that once, a long time ago, there was a bad fire in the park.
What a salesmen!
I doubt that the governor realizes that Acadia is one of the Top Ten most visited national parks in the country; that it was originally created as a national monument; and owes its existence to philanthropy.
Sound familiar? It should. That’s also the story of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which I worked on for more than four years.
He also doesn’t seem to understand the way Baxter State Park is managed. He described Baxter as a working forest, which would certainly surprise a lot of folks, including Gov. Percival Baxter himself.
Baxter State Park allows Scientific Forest Management Area timber harvesting on about 29,500 acres (14 percent) out of a total of 209,644 acres. Most of the park is to remain forever wild.
But the worst of the governor’s flubs was more personal. With business leaders from the Katahdin region sitting right behind him, the governor talked about the region as a mosquito-infested wasteland. A place no one would want to visit.
It was insulting. And it was a lie.
Matt Polstein, who was at the committee meeting on Tuesday, wrote in the Bangor Daily News that his tourism-based business is booming.
The coast, the governor said, is doing great. But nobody is going to come inland. He’s wrong and his disdain for the region only hurts it more as it tries to rebuild from the loss of five paper mills since 2011.
Oh, if only the governor worked as hard at saving those jobs as he has at trying to stop real, significant and long-term investment in the region with the creation of the monument.
The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is already creating jobs, drawing new visitors to the region and helping to bring new energy to a part of the state that needs it.
LePage, who willfully turns away federal dollars meant to help Maine, is equally flip about the $40 million endowment that came with the new monument. LePage dismissed it. It’s not enough to make a real difference, he suggested.
The endowment alone won’t create and maintain the monument, but it’s one hell of a strong start. And Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, a nonprofit, has formed to further support the park.
The governor did not represent our state well. He was misinformed. Belligerent. Untruthful. Insulting. Embarrassing.
LePage showed his character. And it wasn’t pretty.