By Gail Fanjoy, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
President Barack Obama’s decision to establish the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is wonderful news for the Katahdin region. This is a moment that many of us have been waiting for, working for, and dreaming of for years.
This news is particularly exciting for the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, which represents 140 businesses in the communities of Millinocket, East Millinocket, Medway, Lincoln, Patten, Sherman, Brownville and the surrounding unorganized townships.
In March 2014, our board unanimously endorsed a national park and national recreation area on land east of Baxter State Park, and we have been speaking up in support ever since. Obama’s action to establish the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is a major step toward that goal.
Our national parks have been called “America’s best idea.” Personally, I think creating the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is our region’s best idea. Honestly, what other proposals for job creation have been put forth? Those who imply that paper mill jobs may someday return to our area have spread false hopes for too long.
As a third-generation Millinocket resident, I am intimately familiar with the challenges we are facing on a daily basis. The Millinocket mill is gone for good. The East Millinocket mill has been sold for scrap. The Old Town mill is closed. The Lincoln mill has filed for bankruptcy. Bucksport was shut down and is being dismantled. For the first time in 140 years, there are no paper mills in the entire Penobscot River watershed.
Once we had businesses that catered to working folks with good incomes; now we have emergency food pantries and thrift stores. If our homes are selling at all, they are selling for pennies on the dollar. Our property tax rate is high — one of the highest in the state. Municipal services are being cut, and our school systems are skeletons of their former selves compared to when Millinocket-area teachers were some of the highest paid in Maine.
For many, despair has settled in as the situation has gone from bad to worse. Although we must continue to work hard to maintain as many forest products jobs as possible, we desperately need economic diversification, which the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument can help provide.
We support the president’s national monument proclamation because we care so deeply about the future of our communities. We are surrounded by natural resources that can be leveraged in new ways to create jobs, attract people to the region, and help us move forward. The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument will also help shine a spotlight on our proud forest sector heritage and history. The National Park Service does a particularly good job of celebrating the history of the regions around national parks and national monuments.
America’s newest national monument will not solve all our economic problems, but it can be part of a multifaceted strategy moving forward. And the time has come to move forward, and stop looking backward.
Several studies in recent years have demonstrated that communities located near national monuments experience economic benefits as visitors come to the region to explore, vacation, and purchase goods and services. One doesn’t even need a study to know this to be true. The national attention that will come with this new national monument is certain to result in a significant increase in the number of people who visit our area, and this can only be a good thing.
In the wake of this big news, I am so proud of the Katahdin region, of our storied history and our resilient people. I am thankful for the president’s decision on behalf of the nation to accept this wonderful gift. And I could not be more excited about this opportunity to showcase for the world this remarkable area that we call home.
For those who may never have ventured up to this part of Maine, the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument now gives you a reason to do so. And once you’ve visited, I know you’ll return.
Gail Fanjoy of Millinocket is the president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce.