MILLINOCKET, Maine — Federal feasibility studies recommend against 50 percent of the proposed parks they study, and the dimensions of Roxanne Quimby’s proposed North Woods National Park would be controlled by laws and legislatures, not bureaucrats bent on controlling northern Maine, the federal government’s top land manager said Thursday.
Speaking occasionally and more often listening to more than 300 people at Stearns High School’s auditorium, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar refuted criticisms that Quimby’s proposal would grow beyond 70,000 acres if it became a reality and that a park feasibility study would be guaranteed to find in favor of a park.
Salazar promised that Mainers would be the primary arbiters deciding the shape and size of any park they might opt to pursue. Maine’s federal delegation and other legislators, among others, would not allow it to be otherwise, he said.
“We,” he reminded the audience, “are a nation of laws.”
Quimby’s proposal was the subject of two lively meetings Thursday. About 70 people attended a town meeting at Medway Middle School about 2½ hours after the Stearns gathering in which residents voted 46-6 to support a feasibility study of Quimby’s proposal.
Medway residents join their Board of Selectmen, School Committee, and several Katahdin region civic and business organizations in supporting a study. Maine’s two Republican senators, the state Legislature, the Millinocket Town Council, Maine Snowmobile Association, Maine Woods Coalition and the Millinocket Fin and Feather Club oppose or are skeptical about Quimby’s plan.
Salazar visited Stearns as part of his multiday tour of Maine and New England to discuss and gather feedback on Quimby’s proposed gift to the federal government of 70,000 acres she owns adjoining Baxter State Park. He came to town, he said, to hear directly from people who might be affected if a national park was created.
The meeting was a feisty give-and-take session, with Salazar and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis seeking statements and questions from park proponents and opponents alternately. Salazar also fielded direct challenges from residents, including Town Councilor David Cyr, a leading opponent of the parks initiative.
Cyr told Salazar that he would want “to have the federal government leave the area,” describing Millinocket “under attack by the threat of a national park” for 10 years.
Cyr said that years ago, a federal agency meddling in Millinocket paper mill operations cost it financing for a rebuild of its No. 11 paper machine and eventually led to or contributed to the loss of mill owners’ possession of the 19 hydroelectric dams.
Salazar didn’t answer Cyr’s claims about federal agency meddling, but said he came to the meeting out of respect for all opinions, including Cyr’s.
“If there is something that we can do in partnership then I want to take a genuine look at it,” Salazar said, drawing applause from the audience.
Earlier in the meeting, responding to criticism that he or the federal government had been ignoring Millinocket or local residents, he said: “I invited myself. Nobody invited me.”
“It was my decision to come here because I wanted to listen to the people of this area,” Salazar said. “My being here is to be a part of whatever process we ultimately undertake.”
“There will be nothing done with this process that does not include the people in this region,” he added.
He said repeatedly that as a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet and as a private citizen raised in one of Colorado’s poorest communities, local communities, their desires and cultural heritage are very important to him.
The federal government, Salazar said, could do two types of studies of the park proposal. A reconnaissance study would do a basic appreciation of the park landscape and cost $25,000. Salazar could order it himself. The other, what is referred to as a feasibility study, would require congressional approval and take many years to complete, he said.
Like Salazar, Quimby, who attended the Medway meeting, took some direct challenges from residents. She said that she opted to offer her land to the federal government because the parks service has the best track record.
“In spite of the fact that they keep taking budget cuts every year, you still get a great experience,” Quimby said, adding that the parks service “has withstood the test of time. It certainly has changed, but you can still get [a good experience] from visits to parks.”
An elderly man who stood up to address her from the middle school’s gymnasium stands said he simply didn’t trust Quimby to keep the park at 70,000 acres.
“I watch the news, I read the newspapers, and I don’t know why anybody would want to give anything to the federal government,” the man said.
“I am going to stand up for America,” Quimby answered. “We live here and we are the federal government. We are Americans. This is our country and I believe that if there are problems, let’s fix them. Let’s not sit on the sidelines grousing about them.”
Cheryl Russell, president of the Lincoln Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce and a Millinocket native, challenged Salazar’s assertion that a Colorado national park had co-existed well with that state’s forest products industry.
A member of a three-generation logging family, Russell described the logging permitting process within national parks as “insurmountable, undependable. To say that a logging community can coexist with a national park, that was not my experience.”
“We have the talent to do that with the talent of this room without a national park. We just have to work together,” Russell added.
Many national parks, Salazar said, feature mixed uses, such as hunting, snowmobiling, logging and ATV riding, not seen in the stereotypical park. A feasibility study and subsequent work would allow residents near the park to shape the park’s offerings to provide their communities with the greatest economic benefits, he said.
Several residents at the Medway and Millinocket meetings said it was ludicrous to not support a feasibility study, as the study would provide answers to important questions.
“What,” said Buzz Caverly, retired director of Baxter State Park, “are you people afraid of? To ask a question, to get an answer that it will be feasible or not?”
They also said that with the area’s unemployment rate hovering at 21.8 percent and the East Millinocket and Millinocket mills shuttered, Quimby’s gift was priceless and should be seized as an economic lifeline.
State Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, strode to the microphone during the Medway meeting and challenged assertions made by Quimby and her land manager, Mark Leathers. He accused both of vastly underestimating the economic impact of taking land out of forestry use. He said of her 70,000 acres, “There is nothing special about this land.”
“There is no Grand Canyon, no Mount Katahdin on it,” Thomas said, adding that he suspected that the park would draw few visitors given the millions of acres around it that private owners already allow residents to use.
“I don’t buy the economic benefits” of a national park, Thomas said. “I think at the very least we should wait until we know what is going to happen with the mills in Millinocket.”