By Kevin Miller, staff writer
Portland Press Herald news story
President Obama designated more than 87,500 acres of forestland in Maine’s fabled North Woods as a national monument Wednesday in a historic but unilateral decision following years of fierce debate.
With the stroke of a pen, Obama created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument – the second national monument in Maine history after Acadia National Park’s precursor – on land east of Baxter State Park in an area facing severe economic uncertainty. The move is likely to delight conservation activists and infuriate local opponents fearful the designation is trading potential industrial-based opportunities in the Katahdin region for mostly seasonal tourism jobs.
The designation is a substantial yet partial victory for Roxanne Quimby, the wealthy co-founder of the Burt’s Bees product line whose nonprofit, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., donated the land to the federal government this week. Quimby has pushed for years for a full-fledged national park in the North Woods but sought a lesser monument designation because it did not require congressional approval.
Quimby and Obama timed the land donation and monument designation to coincide with Thursday’s 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service.
“The new national monument – which will be managed by the National Park Service – will protect approximately 87,500 acres, including the stunning East Branch of the Penobscot River and a portion of the Maine Woods that is rich in biodiversity and known for its outstanding opportunities to hike, canoe, hunt, fish, snowmobile, snowshoe and cross-country ski,” reads a fact sheet released by the White House. “In addition to protecting spectacular geology, significant biodiversity and recreational opportunities, the new monument will help support climate resiliency in the region. The protected area – together with the neighboring Baxter State Park to the west – will ensure that this large landscape remains intact, bolstering the forest’s resilience against the impacts of climate change.”
The board of directors of Elliotsville Plantation Inc. thanked Obama for the designation on Wednesday. The foundation reiterated its plans to create a $40 million endowment to help cover operations and maintenance costs at the new monument, starting with an initial donation of $20 million. The foundation plans to raise the additional $20 million by working with other donors.
Quimby’s son, Lucas St. Clair, said work is already underway to re-deck bridges and improve roads in the new monument. St. Clair, who played a prominent role in the designation effort, said he plans to stay involved in the transition.
“I want to make sure the communities are able to fully benefit from this, and whatever I can do to help, I’m going to do,” St. Clair said.
The head of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Secretary Sally Jewell, announced plans to visit Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument this weekend. And the National Park Service wasted little time launching the initiative.
The park service has reportedly already hired a superintendent and deputy superintendent to oversee the national monument and planned to open offices Wednesday in Millinocket and Patten. Additionally, the park service created a website for Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and released a YouTube video highlighting some scenes from the property.
“As the National Park Service begins a second century of conservation this week, the President’s designation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument serves as an inspiration to reflect on America’s iconic landscapes and historical and cultural treasures,” Jewell said in a statement. “Through this incredibly generous private gift for conservation, these lands will remain accessible to current and future generations of Americans, ensuring the rich history of Mainers’ hunting, fishing and recreation heritage will forever be preserved.”
The land will be managed by the National Park Service and will be open for a host of recreational opportunities, most notably hiking, camping, whitewater paddling and fishing. Hunting and snowmobiling – two so-called “traditional uses” that are important to the year-round local economy – will apparently be allowed on some but not all of the 87,654 acres. The deeds specify that hunting, for instance, will be allowed “on parcels east of the East Branch of the Penobscot River” and existing arrangements between the state and Elliotsville Plantation for snowmobile routes will be preserved.
Critics of Quimby’s proposal have often expressed concerns about the loss of access to land for hunting, snowmobiling and ATV riding as well as potential ramifications on the forestry industry. U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, had urged federal officials to address those concerns in a joint letter with two other members of the congressional delegation.
King had not publicly endorsed the monument proposal but, on Wednesday, said he believed the designation was “will be a significant benefit to Maine and the region” based on the binding commitments built into the deed transfer from Quimby.
“This conclusion is confirmed by the comments made by Secretary of the Interior Jewell shortly after the designation was announced, explicitly mentioning hiking, canoeing, fishing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and cross country skiing,” King, who is currently on a fact-finding trip to Greenland, said in a statement. “It is critical to see this as an opportunity fully compatible with our existing forest products industry, including potential growth in woods-related businesses. This isn’t either-or, it’s both – and will provide much-needed diversity to the region’s economy.”
National monuments are, in many respects, nearly identical to the better-known national parks, although they often do not have the same cachet among tourists as parks. The key difference is that while only Congress can create a national park, the law allows the president to use executive action to preserve historic or scientifically significant federally owned lands.
Obama’s decision is unlikely to end the robust and often tense debate that has divided the Katahdin region’s business community and even some families, however.
While organizations such as the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce hope it will lure more tourists and create jobs, opponents warned it could further destabilize a forest products industry struggling to rebound from the closure of the Millinocket and East Millinocket paper mills. Many others have mixed views, seeing significant jobs potential but not in the industry that was once the backbone of the region.
Gov. Paul LePage as well as U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-District 2, strongly opposed Quimby’s plan, based in large part on feedback from the forest products industry, sportsmen and others. The other members of Maine’s congressional delegation have been divided on the issue.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a 1st District Democrat who strongly supported a national park or monument in the North Woods, praised the move Wednesday morning.
“This is an exciting and historic day for Maine,” Pingree said in a statement. “The creation of a new national monument will bring economic development to the area and benefit all of Maine. It will bring millions of visitors to this beautiful and special part of our state, and at the same time preserve traditional uses like hunting and snowmobiling. The American people owe a debt of gratitude to Roxanne Quimby for this incredible act of generosity. She worked hard to build a great company from the ground up, and the first thing she did when she sold it was to figure out how to give back to the people of Maine by donating this land. Generations of Americans will benefit from her gift.”
The White House singled out King in its initial release on the designation.
“Throughout this process, Senator King has been a tireless advocate for his constituents, pushing the federal agencies to find constructive solutions to the issues that Mainers have raised,” Brian Deese, assistant to the president and senior adviser, said in a statement.
Residents in several Katahdin area towns such as East Millinocket and Medway have cast non-binding votes opposing a monument. Yet polls suggest the majority of Maine voters, including a majority in the state’s northern congressional district, supported a hypothetical monument designation.