East Millinocket voters reject national park feasibility study

Roxanne Quimby (from left); Bob McIntosh, a retired national park official; Mark Leathers, land manger for Eliotsville Plantation; and Dan O'Leary, CEO of Eliotsville Plantation listen to a citizen's question during a National Park Service feasibility study meeting at Schenck High School in East Millinocket.
Roxanne Quimby (from left); Bob McIntosh, a retired national park official; Mark Leathers, land manger for Eliotsville Plantation; and Dan O'Leary, CEO of Eliotsville Plantation listen to a citizen's question during a National Park Service feasibility study meeting at Schenck High School in East Millinocket.
Posted Nov. 09, 2011, at 12:23 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 09, 2011, at 6:12 p.m.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Voters overwhelmingly opposed a National Park Service feasibility study of Roxanne Quimby’s proposed 70,000-acre national park, voting 513-132 against the idea in unofficial totals compiled late Tuesday, Town Clerk Erica Ingalls said. Five voters left blank ballots.

As part of a nonbinding referendum on the subject, voters were asked to answer yes or no to the following ballot question: “Are you in favor of supporting a feasibility study on a proposed 70,000 acre national park as presented by Roxanne Quimby?”

The Board of Selectmen wanted the question posed to get direction on how it should proceed.

“That’s a pretty definitive statement and we will take it from there,” board Chairman Mark Scally said. “I am not surprised. This is a town built on making paper and the bias with that definitely had an impact.”

Quimby has offered to give the park service 70,000 acres she owns adjoining Baxter State Park in 2016, the service’s 100th birthday, and raise $20 million in a nationwide campaign to complement a $20 million endowment she said would pay for the park’s maintenance.

“I am grateful for the hard work of everyone who has given so much of their time to the National Park Regional Citizen Evaluation Committee,” Quimby said in a statement Wednesday morning. “I believe, as many in the Katahdin region do, that getting the facts on whether a national park would help build a stronger, more diversified economy is important if we are going to leave something better for our children and grandchildren.”

More than a dozen business, civic and environmental groups have expressed support for a feasibility study of Quimby’s plan, saying the study is a logical means by which to assess the park’s impact on the area.

They say that a park could create a much-needed revenue stream in northern Maine and especially the Katahdin region, which had an unemployment rate in September of 20.4 percent. They say a park would coexist well with the region’s forest products industries, bolster the region’s tourism and recreation industries, and preserve a portion of the region’s natural beauty.

“The economy in our region has been hit hard for a long time,” George McLaughlin and Bruce Cox, co-chairmen of the National Park Citizens Committee, a Medway group, said in a statement Wednesday morning. “Yesterday, 132 voters in East Millinocket joined voters in the Katahdin Region Chamber of Commerce, the Katahdin Rotary, 40 local business owners and more than 350 supporters in the tri-town area in saying one thing: We would like to know the facts on whether a North Woods National Park would help diversify and grow economic opportunity for our communities and our children.”

“The vote shows that we need to work harder to engage more people in conversation,” the statement added. “This is just one more step in the process and as we move forward, we will continue to listen and work with everyone in the region to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.”

Medway’s Board of Selectmen is the sole governmental body to support a feasibility study. The state’s two U.S. senators, Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe; U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-East Millinocket; Gov. Paul LePage; the Legislature; and the Millinocket Town Council have opposed or expressed skepticism about Quimby’s plan or the study.

Opponents fear that park service regulations would imperil the area’s forest products industries and that the park would swell far beyond 70,000 acres. They question a feasibility study’s credibility, doubt that the land itself is anything special and favor Snowe’s proposal of having another federal agency do a much broader economic study into which a park impact assessment would be folded like a chapter in a book.

Scally said the 513 “no” votes probably would have a significant impact on Quimby’s campaign. Almost 50 percent of the town’s electorate voted on the question, Ingalls said.

“We have remained neutral during this entire thing and a lot of people were wondering where we stood on it,” he said.

He also attributed Quimby’s loss to her conduct over the last 10 years — buying and gating off large tracts of land that had been open for generations and restricting popular activities such as hunting on the lands she allows access to.

“A lot of this comes from how she [Quimby] shoots herself in the foot and says and does things that are contrary to the people of this area,” Scally said. “I feel sad about it because a park could be a viable jobs producer in the area, but when she says the things she does, you have to question her motives.”

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