May 28, 2018
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Park study would help Katahdin region identify opportunities

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
In this Jan. 28, 2011 photo, clouds hide the summit of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, in this view from land owned by Roxanne Quimby in Township 3, Range 8, Maine. Quimby, the founder of Burts Bees, wants to donate 70,000 acres east of Baxter to the federal government with the aim of creating a Maine Woods National Park.

State government and Maine’s congressional delegation are loathe to show support for a national park plan for the Katahdin region, probably because doing so would risk political opposition with little gain. The federal government, likely in the early years of an extended lean era, will not readily take on the burden of building and maintaining another park, given that budgets for existing national parks are stretched thin.

And among many residents of the region, the park idea is seen as a repudiation of the century-old paper mill economic model and a snubbing of the traditional consumptive recreational uses of the woods.

So if one were inclined to bet on whether a national park will be established in the Katahdin region within the next 20 years, the smart money would take the no-park side.

But, the region has no other prospects for economic growth on the horizon. Stores are shuttered, houses sell for less than many new cars. The mill in Millinocket has been closed for three years; the future of the one in East Millinocket — and its hundreds of jobs — is uncertain.

Since that’s the case, shouldn’t community leaders support Ms. Quimby’s call for a feasibility study for the park? If the study shows solid economic benefits from a park, it’s true that Ms. Quimby’s bid would be bolstered. But shouldn’t residents and other stakeholders know as much as possible about the proposal’s impact, rather than drawing conclusions about the park without studying it?

The region’s business community appears to begin to understand this. Earlier this week, the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce unanimously approved a study. They were careful to say they didn’t support creation of a national park, but thought the idea should be looked at. This is the first time such a large group in the region has taken a supportive position.

And even if the study shows substantial economic growth following the establishment of a national park, steep hurdles would remain. Residents hold the ultimate trump card, because the state and federal governments will not finance a park — even with Ms. Quimby’s sizable land donations and maintenance endowment fund — if it is widely opposed locally.

If area business and civic leaders sincerely care about the future of the region, as they surely do, they can use the study to learn more about their economic development options. If a park is not in the cards, what other recreational opportunities can be developed? How is the region currently perceived by out-of-state visitors to Maine? What changes can be made to get those visitors to venture in-land? Any feasibility study should address these questions.

If local leaders worry that a study Ms. Quimby initiates will not yield an impartial analysis, they should include opponents in the consultant selection and scoping process.

The study is a rare and valuable opportunity for a struggling region, a region whose future now looks bleak, to learn more about itself. There is little at risk, and a huge potential gain to have a professional view of one segment of the area’s economy.

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