Patrick Strauch of the Maine Forest Products Council made a lot of claims in his July 5 column, “Maine woodlands better off without a park.” Most are off-point.
Strauch claims that a national park would hurt traditional recreation uses. In truth, millions of acres in Maine have been lost to access for traditional uses due to posting of private property. A national park and preserve would be public land open to the public except in very sensitive areas. There is no better way to protect hunting, snowmobiling, camping, hiking and other public uses than by ensuring they will continue on public land rather than be subject to the whims of private landowners.
Strauch claims that a national park would have negative consequences for taxes. In truth, by law national parks make payments in lieu of taxes. Studies have found that a 3.2 million-acre Maine Woods National Park would pay as much or more than the state gets from property taxes because assessments on those private forestlands are so low.
Strauch claims that a national park would harm employment. In truth, thousands of jobs in Maine’s forestry industry have disappeared and more will be eliminated due to mechanization in the woods and mills. A park would help diversify the economy of northern Maine. It would supplement the troubled forest industry while leaving most of Maine’s timberland unaffected. It would create new jobs restoring damaged forests and rehabilitating wildlife habitat. It would draw new businesses and residents seeking a healthy natural environment. And it would expand the tourism economy.
Strauch claims that Millinocket would not be a suitable park gateway because jobs in hospitality and recreation earn less than the statewide average wage while paper manufacturing jobs earn more. In truth, the thousands of papermaking jobs that have been slashed in Millinocket will not be back even if the mill there restarts, so talking about high-paying manufacturing jobs that do not exist is not relevant.
That said, the choice is not either a park or a mill. Millilnocket could be both a park gateway community and a forestry manufacturing center. A park could attract well-paying service and professional jobs (such as transportation, finance, business, health care and education) to Millinocket. Additionally, it would be a boon to nature-based tourism. Tourism is already Maine’s largest employer, providing jobs for more than 140,000 people. It generates $10 billion a year in sales and $3 billion in earnings. But most of those jobs are in southern Maine. Acadia National Park brings over $166 million per year and supports 3,300 private sector jobs. Northern Maine deserves a chance to share in that prosperity.
Strauch claims that a park feasibility study would signal mill owners to invest elsewhere. Is the forest industry in Maine so frail that we cannot even talk about economic diversification? The evidence shows workers are being cut, mills are closing and wild lands are being degraded. None of this is because of proposals to protect a portion of the Maine woods in a public park. It is tectonic shifts in the global economy and business decisions by the forest industry itself to invest in regions with lower labor, energy and transportation costs that have left so many Mainers unemployed, so many mills idled and so many forestlands poorly managed.
Strauch claims that if we just pay forestland owners for more easements, the “unique system that has served Maine well for hundreds of years” will be fine. In truth, we have spent more than a quarter billion dollars on conservation projects in Maine since the late 1990s. While working forest easements can be a useful tool to deflect some development, they do not permanently stop all development, they do not ensure preservation of habitat, most do not ensure public access, and they do not even guarantee sustainable forestry.
Strauch claims that a feasibility study would set the stage for years of uncertainty and debate. In truth, we have already suffered endless dithering because at every turn opponents have blocked public discussion about all the alternatives, including a park. People are tired of “No.” Momentum is growing for a study of the benefits and costs of a park and other options because it represents “Yes.”
Maine citizens deserve the best possible information so we can make well-informed decisions. It is past time that we have a serious public debate about the future of the Maine woods. I hope the Maine Forest Products Council will help lead us there, not block the path forward.
Jym St. Pierre is Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods in Hallowell.