Mainers give Obama administration plenty of outdoor ideas

Posted Sept. 02, 2010, at 6:16 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:26 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Federal officials descended on the Bangor Civic Center on Thursday in search of ideas that can help rejuvenate the nation’s conservation and outdoor recreation landscape.

Three hundred Mainers were happy to oblige. Many offered suggestions, critiques and solutions to representatives of President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoor Initiative.

No consensus was reached, nor was one sought. And what Mainers thought was important varied widely.

To some in Millinocket or Fort Kent, federal support of the snowmobiling industry, which would lessen the burden on volunteers and clubs, would be desirable.

For others in the Penobscot River valley, continued support of the Penobscot River Restoration Project would be a boon.

Some would love a North Woods National Park. Others wouldn’t stand for it.

John Banks, natural resource director for the Penobscot Indian Nation, pointed out that consistency from federal partners will be essential.

“I think you just need to understand that [progress] takes a long-term commitment to make some of these things come to reality,” Banks said. “You’ve got to stick with it, very simply.”

America’s Great Outdoors Initiative was established by Obama in April during a White House conference that focused on reconnecting Americans with the outdoors and developing a 21st century conservation and recreation agenda.

To that end, federal officials have been traveling across the country, meeting with local conservation and recreation leaders to gather ideas and devise strategies.

In just the past week, federal officials have staged America’s Great Outdoor listening sessions in Orlando, Fla., Nashville, Tenn., Chicago, and Fort Pierre, S.D. The Bangor session was the 25th and final stop in the tour, and Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, said when judged on a per-capita basis, it was likely the best-attended.

Thursday’s Maine swing included tours and background information on the Penobscot River Restoration Project, a luncheon panel discussion on Indian Island, and the Bangor listening session.

Don Kleiner, the executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association, touted the successes that Maine conservationists have enjoyed and told a discussion group that he sees evidence of those triumphs every day. When he was growing up, ospreys were rare. Now, he said, they’re common, and he sees bald eagles nearly every day.

But the economic side of the outdoor recreation equation can’t be ignored, he said.

“The piece that I think is missing in conservation … is that it’s got to be tied to economic development,” Kleiner said. “We cannot eat pine trees. We cannot eat scenery. Somehow, economic development has got to be a part of that.’’

Rick Levasseur, who owns 5 Lakes Lodge on South Twin Lake near Millinocket, and who serves as chairman of the Maine Department of Conservation’s Snowmobile Advisory Council, said federal help could boost a $300 million industry.

“Through the Department of Agriculture, you have the rural business enterprise grants available,” Levasseur said. “That would be a wonderful place I would like to see the feds step in and help snowmobiling and ATVing in Maine. Increase the level of funding of the RBEG grants and streamline the process that we can access some of that money.”

Scott Hall, the manager of environmental services for Black Bear Hydro Partners LLC, said the success of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, in which his company plays a key role, can serve as a lesson for people across the country. Several conservation groups, companies, government and nongovernment agencies, and the Penobscot Indian Nation combined forces to make the project a reality in 2003. The plan: Purchase three dams. Remove two of them. Add fish passage at the third.The federal government can continue to help, he said, by following a simple rule: Continue to work toward solving problems, rather than view them as insurmountable.

“Creating a culture of ‘yes,’ creating a culture that is intending to try to get to ‘yes’ [is crucial],” Hall said. “The Penobscot agreement is a good example of that. When we came up with a challenge, and we were able to identify the problem, there was a concerted effort to get to ‘yes.’”

The National Park Service’s Jarvis addressed the long-simmering North Woods National Park issue, saying there are different ways for the federal government to become involved. Not all options involve creation of a traditional national park.

“There are models out there where conservation can work equivalently with working landscapes,” Jarvis said. “[Various federal agencies] have a range of tools, a range of authorities, that can help. Let’s just say that we’re not very nimble at times.”

Administration officials who attended the Bangor session included Jarvis; Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Robert Bonnie, senior adviser to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s secretary for Environment and Climate; Ann Mills, USDA deputy undersecretary for resources and environment; and Will Shafroth, the Department of the Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

According to the presidential memo that established America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, federal partners in the initiative are required to report to the president by Nov. 15. That report will include findings from the listening sessions and an action plan to guide future efforts.

For information about the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, go to www.doi.gov/americasgreatoutdoors .

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