MEDWAY, Maine — Several town officials have formed a committee that will work in tandem with environmentalist and entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby to push Congress to authorize a feasibility study of her plan to turn 70,000 acres adjoining Baxter State Park into a national park, they said Wednesday.
The committee, co-chairman Bruce Cox said, will look to get all Maine residents behind the effort, not just those from the Katahdin region, but it will concentrate its efforts in northern Maine.
The panel hopes that if a study is done and it shows the proposal is feasible, a park can be established well ahead of Quimby’s five-year timeline, given the region’s 21.8 percent unemployment rate.
“We have to get moving. This is too important to take a laid-back approach like that,” co-chairman George McLaughlin said of Quimby’s hope to make a gift of her land to the federal government in 2016.
The National Park Regional Citizen Evaluation Committee will have several subcommittees with an overall goal of examining the 70,000 acres’ qualifications for designation as a national park and understanding a park’s potential economic and social impacts on the area and the state.
It also will examine the National Park Service’s ability to manage the park and work to jointly promote ecofriendly tourist and manufacturing jobs in the Katahdin region, according to the group’s mission statement.
One of the group’s first goals, McLaughlin said, is to arrange tours of the land to allow residents to see for themselves what potential the land has as a tourist destination.
“We have a lot of questions we want to answer,” said Cox, who is chairman of the Medway Board of Selectmen but who, like other town officials, is working on the committee privately, not as a selectman. “We welcome all of your questions. We want people to be as well-informed on this as they can be.”
The Legislature passed a resolve in June opposing Quimby’s initiative, through which she hopes to create a Maine Woods National Park. The park would be nearly twice the size of Acadia National Park. Sportsmen would get another 30,000 acres north of Dover-Foxcroft to be managed like a state park, with hunting and snowmobiling allowed.
Another 10 million acres of forestland nearby would be unaffected.
Park proponents said that Quimby’s proposal would draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to a Katahdin region with an unemployment rate nearly triple the state average, shuttered paper mills, a dying forest products industry and no other significant investors apparently willing to put money into the region.
The park would be virtually self-sustaining with Quimby’s promise to raise $20 million to add to a $20 million maintenance endowment she would create, they said.
Opponents have cited fears of damaging state efforts to revitalize the region’s two paper mills, which if restarted could employ about 600 people at manufacturing wages, which are generally higher than tourism wages; of granting federal government control and tax-exempt status to the 70,000 acres and hurting forest products industry lands; and of the park growing much larger than 70,000 acres.
Maine’s two Republican senators, the Maine Woods Coalition, the Millinocket Town Council and the Millinocket Fin and Feather Club have opposed or expressed skepticism about Quimby’s plan.
Medway’s school board, Board of Selectmen and several Katahdin region civic and business groups have supported a feasibility study. East Millinocket’s Board of Selectmen has elected not to take a position on the issue, and that town’s school board deadlocked on a vote supporting a study.
Gov. Paul LePage has yet to give his stance on Quimby’s proposal.
Mark Scally, chairman of the East Millinocket Board of Selectmen, said he was told the governor is vehemently opposed to a feasibility study but that efforts to create one, or to build a national park, have had no impact upon the state’s efforts to secure a buyer to revitalize the East Millinocket and Millinocket paper mills.
A spokeswoman for LePage declined to comment on the issue Wednesday.
John Raymond, a town councilor from Millinocket, said he was told by Rosaire Pelletier, one of state government’s leading forest products industry advisers, that efforts to create a national park were not helping the state’s efforts to revitalize the Katahdin paper mills.
Mark Marston, an East Millinocket selectmen, said Wednesday that he had heard the same thing from Pelletier, that the timing of the parks effort was “inappropriate.”