AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage is watching the debate over Roxanne Quimby’s proposal to turn 70,000 acres adjacent to Baxter State Park into a national park, but has no plans to stake out a position immediately, Conservation Commissioner William Beardsley said Wednesday.
“I think he feels that the dialogue is under way,” Beardsley said in a telephone interview. “It is in process. People are expressing positions. The governor feels that it is premature for him to jump in and short-cut the process.”
“That’s not saying that he is for it or against it,” added Beardsley, who discussed the issue with LePage at the governor’s office on Wednesday. “He feels it needs to play out.”
The governor is committed primarily to leading state government in its efforts to manage the more than 5 million acres of land, submerged land and land managed with state easements to rebuild or improve both the state’s natural resources economy and the overall economy, Beardsley said.
LePage’s primary focus: Find the best and most prosperous economic mix of the state’s many traditional land uses and the more recent ideas, such as ecotourism, to come along, Beardsley said.
The 70,000 acres in Quimby’s proposal “is just a small part of a much larger issue,” Beardsley said.
LePage declined several requests to be interviewed on the issue, with his spokeswoman referring comment on the matter to Beardsley on Wednesday.
LePage’s reticence on the issue is something of an anomaly for him — a leader usually quick to make his feelings known — and for Quimby’s proposal itself. Lines have been drawn quickly around her initiative, despite its lack of details.
Quimby’s 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.
As yet unrevealed are the park’s entrance roads and what features within it that might draw tourists. Quimby said she hopes to make a gift of the park to federal officials in 2016 and warned that sizable tourist traffic to it might take decades to build.
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 over 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 U.S. senators, the Maine Woods Coalition, the Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset county commissioners, the Millinocket Town Council and the Millinocket Fin and Feather Club have opposed or expressed skepticism about Quimby’s plan.
Several mainstays of the region’s forest products industry, including Katahdin Forest Management President Marcia McKeague, also have said that taking the 70,000 acres off property tax rolls would be the continuation of an environmental preservationist trend that has removed 315,000 acres of working forests from the tax rolls and the industry’s breadbasket, making it more difficult for those still in the business to stay that way.
Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have said they must be convinced that a national park enjoys the support of the people around it before they would consider supporting the proposal. Snowe has said “authorizing a federal park in Northern Maine would cause a region of the state to be governed by decisions dictated from Washington.”
Collins said that “a national park would most likely spell the end to the working forest that has provided thousands of good jobs to the area’s families for generations.”
Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said councilors don’t want to see a feasibility study done because the study would be a waste of taxpayer dollars, given their lack of interest in a park.
Several groups have said they want to see its feasibility studied. Those groups include Medway’s school board and Board of Selectmen and the Katahdin region’s business organizations.
Consisting largely of Medway officials and Katahdin region businessmen, the National Park Regional Citizen Evaluation Committee formed Aug. 4 to work in parallel with Quimby and push Congress to authorize a feasibility study of her plan. An act of Congress is required for the study. Presidential and congressional approval must come before a park can occur.
Committee members hope to get all Maine residents behind the effort, not just those from the Katahdin region, but will concentrate their efforts in northern Maine. The panel hopes that if a study is done and 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.
Committee members said they hope to arrange tours of the land to see for themselves how salable a park might be. One of the group’s subcommittee chairmen, tourism entrepreneur Rick LeVasseur, who owns 5 Lakes Lodge off South Twin Lake near Millinocket, said he has been through the land since he was 12 and that it contains elements that would make a spectacular park, if developed properly.
Besides being gorgeous, the parts of the Penobscot River that run through the 70,000 acres offer excellent kayaking and terrific views of Mount Katahdin, LeVasseur said.
The national park could also be managed very differently from Baxter, emphasizing a more casual camping and nature experience more in line with what’s offered by Acadia than by Baxter, which features many miles of undeveloped, totally raw land, he said.