By Rick LeVasseur, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
As part of his review of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is coming to Maine on Tuesday. He wants to gain insight into the history of the monument, which will help him make a recommendation to the president that will shape the future of the Katahdin region, Maine and the nation.
The ongoing review of recent national monument designations and the possibility that the North Woods monument designation could be rescinded has cast a shadow over the region. The blame for this falls squarely on Gov. Paul LePage. Instead of working to ensure this new economic driver is successful — and this is a region that could use it — he told Congress the majority of Mainers oppose the monument; there was insufficient public outreach; there haven’t been economic benefits; the Katahdin region is infested with mosquitoes and, therefore, not worth visiting; and that Mainers are losing traditional recreation opportunities and livelihoods.
None of this is true.
Zinke needs to understand that any claim of insufficient public outreach is, to be frank, ridiculous, as anyone who has lived in Maine for the past five or 10 years knows. And those conversations, the monument and the negativity of this review directly affect me and my communities.
As a lifelong Katahdin region resident and business owner, I’ve been snowmobiling in this region for 52 years, grooming trails for 30 and president of the Jo-Mary Riders Snowmobile Club for 15. I and other riders in all of the four local clubs endorsed and continue to support the monument. Some of northern Maine’s most important trail corridors — ITS 83, 85 and 86 — run through the monument land on the east side of the East Branch of the Penobscot River. My business, 5 Lakes Lodge, and all other snowmobiling-oriented businesses in this region depend on those trails. That’s why I’ve supported the monument from Day 1.
What our governor never mentioned to Congress — and likely won’t tell Zinke — is that snowmobile access along the ITS corridors crossing the monument lands is guaranteed forever because of negotiations in 2007 between the town of Millinocket, the Maine Snowmobile Association, the state of Maine and Elliotsville Plantation Inc., which donated the monument land to the U.S. government. Those negotiations led to an access agreement that is permanent, irrevocable and binding on the parties and their respective successors, including the National Park Service. That agreement is held by the state.
The monument and the park service offer huge economic and cultural assets for our communities. For example, last fall the park service re-decked several snowmobile bridges that were falling into disrepair. It saved local clubs a ton of money. All of this and the incredibly generous funding Elliotsville Plantation is providing to get the monument off the ground — despite open hostility from an executive branch that should gratefully accept it — is a result of all the outreach, public conversations and negotiations conducted over several years.
As to the rest of the governor’s claims, there have been many articles, letters to the editor and OpEds in Maine’s major newspapers that highlight the many economic benefits already accruing because of the monument. Real estate is selling after years of abandonment, and businesses are investing and expanding to meet increased demand from tourists since the designation. If the history of other monuments is an indicator, those numbers will continue to swell and businesses are right to make these major investments and expansions.
Perhaps equally as important as the economic bump from the monument is the way our communities are coming together to embrace this new opportunity. There is no question that our region has suffered because of the demise of our mills, and in recent years, there have been sometimes bitter debates over our future and how the monument could fit into it. But since its establishment, even longtime opponents have expressed optimism, hope and a willingness to make the monument a success.
LePage’s attempts to reopen wounds are unappreciated and unhelpful. Zinke has two choices: He can remove our monument from this review and support it or he can remove the bandage and reopen the wounds.
My hope is that he’ll listen to the overwhelming majority of Mainers, U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, all of whom oppose efforts to tamper with the monument.
Rick LeVasseur is owner of 5 Lakes Lodge on South Twin Lake in T4 Indian Purchase. He is a former owner of Katahdin Shadows Campground and Katahdin Shadows Motel in Medway, and he started and ran Penobscot River Outfitters from 1988 to 2003.