This year marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of Maine’s state park system. Parks and historic sites have celebrated all year, and a 10 percent increase in visits confirms that Maine people and visitors value these gems.
The foundation of the system was laid in 1923, when Gov. Percival Baxter purchased eight forts, including Knox and Popham, when the federal government offered this surplus property for sale. In 1935, the Legislature created the State Park Commission. A group of Presque Isle businessmen donated Aroostook State Park in 1938. Today, there are 48 state parks and historic sites across the state.
The foresight of all these leaders preserved Maine history and contributed to our economy. A 2006 study by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center pegged the total economic impact of visits to state parks at $95.7 million annually. These beautiful places offer other benefits as well: education and a deeper understanding of Maine history; the opportunity to disconnect from our busy world and reconnect with friends and family; every form of recreation, including hunting and fishing; physical activity and refreshment of spirit.
Parks and historic sites benefit tremendously from support groups such as the Friends of Maine State Parks and the Friends of Fort Knox. These groups raise funds, sponsor events and assist with infrastructure improvements. Together, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, or BPL, and the Friends groups are able to achieve more than either could separately.
More than 2 million people use state parks annually, but that use creates significant wear and tear. To maintain the facilities entrusted to the state’s care and realize their full potential, we must invest in them. A 2004 engineering study identified $33 million in need across the system. Factoring for inflation, that total is closer to $40 million.
In 2007, voters approved a bond question that included $7.5 million for investment in parks. The BPL put the money to work, completing 26 major projects at 14 locations across the state. In the process, the bureau created 60 jobs for every $1 million spent, many of them in rural areas.
Projects at historic sites included repairing masonry at Fort Popham, reopening the fort and allowing visitors to its second floor for the first time in decades; stabilizing the shoreline at Eagle Island, the summer home of Arctic explorer Adm. Robert E. Peary; renovation of the Maj. Colburn House, from which Benedict Arnold departed on his long march to Quebec; and preventing erosion at Colonial Pemaquid from destroying historic foundations and artifacts.
Repairs to the Washburn-Crouseville trestle kept open a key snowmobile crossing. Other improvements to parks include 10 restroom or shower buildings; one group shelter; and upgrades to four water systems, eight power systems and nine sanitary systems. These last sound mundane but ensure a better visitor experience. Six new playgrounds have drawn more families to the parks. Accessibility for all users has been incorporated into each project.
Yet the need for investment remains. The remaining structures at the Katahdin Iron Works are at risk. Fort Knox, Fort McClary and Fort William Henry all require masonry repairs. Across the state, antiquated plumbing, electrical and sewer systems need replacement. Outdated toilets and inadequate playgrounds discourage use, and lack of access keeps disabled visitors from enjoying many sites.
On Nov. 2, Maine voters will have the opportunity to continue to invest in these places they hold so dear. Question No. 3 contains $500,000 for state parks and facilities managed by the BPL. It can leverage an additional $500,000 in federal funds, accomplishing $1 million in repairs and renovations and creating 60 construction jobs.
Question No. 3 also contains $9.25 million for Land for Maine’s Future. LMF has an outstanding record, having conserved more than 500,000 acres in every county and corner of Maine, all from willing sellers; guaranteed public access to mountain summits, rivers, lakes, ponds, forests and shorelines; and ensured continued fishing, hunting, trapping and farming. This important program is essential for expanding public access to Maine lands
An investment in parks, lands and historic sites is an investment in ourselves — in our health, in our history and in a strong economic future. We ask Maine voters to continue their support for our state parks, lands and historic sites by voting for Question No. 3.
Chris Popper of Bangor is chairman of the board of directors of the Friends of Fort Knox and a former Bangor city councilor. Mike Gallagher is vice president of the Friends of Maine State Parks.