As Trump administration reviews 27 national monuments, conservationists fear a federally mandated effort to strip public lands of environmental protections
by Edward Helmore
The Guardian news story
A decision by the Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, to ban signs to Katahdin Woods and Waters, a national monument designated by Barack Obama, has been described as “sophomoric and petty” by a member of the family that donated the 87,563-acre tract to the nation.
LePage made the controversial move, which was announced on Friday, pending the outcome of a federal review of 27 national monuments ordered by Donald Trump in April and being carried out by the US interior secretary, Ryan Zinke.
In February, LePage asked Trump to reverse Katahdin’s designation, arguing that Obama had violated the federal Antiquities Act. “I think it was a horrible, horrible decision and it should be reversed if it can,” he said in remarks reported by the Portland Press Herald.
A state transportation spokesman, Ted Talbot, said in remarks reported by the Bangor Daily News that the refusal to allow official signs for Katahdin to be placed along main roads, including interstate 95 and routes 11, 157 and 159, was a cost-saving measure.
“What we don’t want to do is commit taxpayers’ money to signage or any type of project without knowing that it [the monument] is in place and that everyone is on board with it,” he said.
Conservationists, however, fear a federally mandated effort to strip public lands of environmental protections.
Lucas St Clair, whose family acquired the land using the Burt’s Bees fortune, told the Guardian that the governor’s refusal to erect signs was “spiteful and destructive”.
“It’s one of the most irresponsible things he could do for the region,” St Clair added. “To place signs to show the way to the national monument is a simple thing. It could even be [done with] private money. But he has refused to allow that to happen. It’s a sophomoric and petty way to behave.”
Under direction from Trump, Zinke is considering scaling back or redesignating tens of thousands of acres of protected land that could then be turned over to state governments, thereby becoming subject to looser standards regarding commercial exploitation including drilling and mining.
Zinke began the review process two weeks ago at Bears Ears in Utah, a site sacred to Native Americans and one of the largest Obama-era monument designations. In Maine, US interior department officials will review whether the Katahdin proposal was adequately vetted by stakeholders. The process is due to finish on 24 August.
Environmentalists, including St Clair, claim LePage’s attempt to deny signage is an attempt to cut visitor numbers to Katahdin in its first full season as a monument.
At a meeting of the Natural Resources Council of Maine on Friday, several former opponents of monument status said the governor’s actions would hurt the region.
Jon Ellis, a local business owner, said LePage was out of step. “To my knowledge, Governor LePage has never even set foot [here] and yet he insults our region by calling it a ‘mosquito area’,” Ellis said in a statement reported by the Associated Press. “The monument has brought new energy to our towns and helped unify the region.”
Most monuments under federal review exceed 100,000 acres. St Clair claimed LePage petitioned the Trump administration to include Katahdin, which is slightly smaller.
“This is very different to the Organ Mountains in New Mexico or the monuments in Utah,” he said. “This was private land that my family owned and wanted to donate to create a national park, and really it’s just one outspoken person – the governor – who wants it to be rescinded.”
Environmentalists claim the Katahdin land will create its own commercial purpose as a relatively pristine destination for outdoor recreation. Others claim the land, which lies in the shadow of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak, would be better returned to timber production.
“They fail to realize the land was sold to us by people from the forest products industry because it was no longer valuable to them as a landscape to log and cut trees,” St Clair said. “That argument that this is taking this land out of potential fiber production is absurd.”
LePage’s decision to block signage is entirely self-serving, St Clair maintained, “because the only reason it is under review is because he asked for it to be under review. LePage is trying to undermine the benefit of a national monument from a tourism perspective. Then he will point to that and say, ‘See! It wasn’t worthy of being a monument.’
“The best thing the public can do is comment on the department of the interior’s website and demonstrate their appreciation for the landscape by going and enjoying it.”