BANGOR, Maine — Penobscot County commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday over the objections of Commissioner Peter Baldacci to oppose Roxanne Quimby’s proposed national park.
With Baldacci saying that the commission should hear first from Quimby or her son Lucas St. Clair, two commissioners opted to join the state Legislature, both U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of East Millinocket in opposing the park.
Commission Chairman Tom Davis and Commissioner Stephen Stanley said they found it unnecessary to discuss the well-known issue further. Both described a national park as an unnecessary addition to Baxter State Park and doubted that it would contribute enough to the county economy to offset the incursion of federal authority it would bring.
Davis said he has visited more than 20 national parks and has not seen the communities around them as particularly prosperous. Many are based on lands lacking other uses or industries, such as Death Valley and Yosemite National Park, while the land around Baxter is vital to the Maine forest products industry.
“Personally I feel it would add just another nail to the coffin of the Katahdin area with the businesses that we have there,” Stanley said. “I don’t see that this [park plan] is a proposal that will benefit the county and I don’t see where it is a benefit to the people who work in the Katahdin area.”
“It isn’t just the mills” in that region, Davis said, “but the amount of jobs that go to back that mill job up.”
St. Clair wrote in a letter dated Sunday to the commission that officials from Elliotsville Plantation Inc., the nonprofit foundation he describes as working to conserve land and preserve open spaces for public benefit, should meet with commissioners to hear their concerns before a decision is made.
“Elliotsville is in the process of evaluating the possibilities for the future of our property, with an emphasis on options that preserve access for the future use and enjoyment of all Mainers for hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and other outdoor recreation,” St. Clair, president of the foundation’s board of directors, said in the letter.
“We believe such a request is a reasonable one for any property owner to make whenever an outside group wants to bring the subject of a property owner’s lands before a governing body such as the commission,” the letter continues.
When reached Tuesday afternoon, St. Clair said he was digesting the news and hoped to speak or release a statement later Tuesday.
Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue argued for the commission’s eventual decision and for a proposal from the Maine Woods Coalition, an organization he also represented at the commission meeting. Following Conlogue’s request, the commission agreed to form a committee with local officials that under federal law would act as a voice equal to the National Park Service and any other federal agency that might come into northern Penobscot County to advocate for a federal park.
“We think that we have to get a very solid seat at that national table in order to have a position to deal with federal government on an equal basis and also to be in opposition to a national park or some other national use in that area,” Conlogue said during the meeting.
Millinocket leaders and members of the Maine Woods Coalition have opposed Quimby’s proposal to give about 70,000 acres she owns or will own to the National Park Service for a national park in 2016 and to create another 30,000-acre area for motorized recreational usage.
Park supporters have said that a study would be the best means of determining the suitability of Quimby’s land for a park. A park could provide a vast new revenue stream for the economically depressed region, they say, and a $40 million endowment Quimby plans to provide, including $20 million she hopes to raise with a national campaign, would cover park maintenance and operation costs.
Opponents challenge the credibility of a national park study and are skeptical of statements made by Quimby and federal officials that a park would not grow beyond 70,000 acres. They say federal authority would infringe on local government and threaten the state’s forest products industry.
Conlogue argued Tuesday that the proposal would cost the county for increased police and infrastructure service, including maintenance for roads leading to the park. It also would deprive the county of taxes derived from Quimby’s lands. Quimby also has discussed creating a 70,000-acre recreational area that also would be under federal control and would feature most every form of motorized recreational usage, he said. It was not clear whether that would supplant the 30,000-acre recreational area proposal she previously made.
Baldacci chided Conlogue for arguing that the 70,000-acre park would eventually morph into a 3.2-million-acre park advocated by a group called RESTORE: The North Woods more than a decade ago.
“My concern is that you are mixing things that you shouldn’t necessarily do,” Baldacci said. “I don’t think it’s accurate to connect the future of the mills [of Penobscot County] to a 70,000-acre national park proposal. That’s why you are bringing up RESTORE but RESTORE is not the proposal that anyone is proposing and I think it is agreed that it has no support.”
Baldacci rejected commissioners’ arguments that a national park would duplicate Baxter State Park. He disagreed that the committee the commission would form should automatically be opposed to a national park.
“Your argument is to look at Baxter State Park and that [Quimby’s plan] as the same thing. I am not sure this [national park] would have enough traction to be a national park,” Baldacci said. “Baxter State Park is beautiful but it does not provide a big economic benefit to the area because they make wilderness and no development so important” at Baxter.
“A national park is whole different thing,” Baldacci said.
National parks tend to draw more people who explore an area and its businesses far longer than do visitors to Baxter, Baldacci said. Nationally, studies have shown that gateway communities around national parks do quite well, he said.
Among the individuals and entities opposing the park plan and a park study are U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins; Michaud of East Millinocket; Gov. Paul LePage; the Maine Legislature; and the towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket.
More than a dozen community, business and environmental groups — including several snowmobile clubs, the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce and Millinocket’s downtown business association — have publicly supported a feasibility study.
That support undercuts Conlogue’s contention that the park would harm businesses there, Baldacci said.