Is a national park in Maine worth it?

Quimby’'s Elliotsville Plantation Inc. owns several thousand acres of land in rural Maine it hopes to turn into a national park.
Lucas St. Clair
Quimby’'s Elliotsville Plantation Inc. owns several thousand acres of land in rural Maine it hopes to turn into a national park.
Posted Feb. 15, 2013, at 4:49 p.m.

For years now, people who support the creation of a national park in the Katahdin region have said a park would produce economic benefits for Maine and local towns. Opponents have argued, meanwhile, that such a park would limit existing and potential future businesses. On Thursday, Roxanne Quimby’s land-holdings company released two economic studies that clarify, to an extent, the economic effect of a national park and recreation area.

The overall takeaway from the studies commissioned by the company, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., is that a 75,000-acre national park and 75,000-acre recreation area would grow both low- and high-income jobs, draw more people and businesses and generate more tax money for Penobscot County — though less for the Department of Conservation and Maine’s general fund. Looking closely at the data, though, and considering local employment and personal-income trends, no one should expect a park to transform the region. It’s a point understood by Lucas St. Clair, president of the board for Elliotsville Plantation.

But a park would most likely help the region. One of the studies examined the economies of peer regions across the U.S. that are similar to Penobscot and Piscataquis counties but have either a national park alone or national parks with nearby national recreation areas. It found that these regions’ economies grew faster than the U.S. as a whole and faster than Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, from 1970 to 2010. Peer regions with recreation areas alone — which are federally protected — showed a more uneven picture of economic growth.

The study suggested a national park could potentially create about 450 new private-sector jobs. Ben Alexander, associate director of Headwaters Economics, which performed the research, said the park’s effect on the forest products industry would likely be “negligible.” The papermaking industry faces greater threats from automation and global trade; in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, the manufacturing sector, which consists mostly of forest products, shrank from providing 25 percent of total jobs in 1970 to 6 percent in 2010.

But the possible park jobs projections in this case aren’t as important as the general estimations. Whether it could create 200 or 600 jobs, the point is: A park wouldn’t be enough to create a flourishing regional economy in itself, but it could be part of the prospects for economic growth. What are the other currently available options? Millinocket’s population declined more than 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, losing about 550 people. East Millinocket added about 70 people in that time, growing just 4 percent. And the population in the region is growing older: From 2000 to 2010, the only age category of growth in Millinocket was among people age 65 and older.

There will always be more data that can be gathered about such a significant potential change. But it may be helpful to examine the impact of a national park in comparison to adjacent Baxter State Park or to research anticipated development needs within gateway communities. And it is reasonable to expect other studies to be funded by an agency without a direct stake in the outcome.

Whether the park proposal comes to fruition will depend on much more than an economic analysis. It would require a change in opinion, as many residents see the park idea as a rejection of the paper mill economic model and recreational uses of the woods. Some members of Maine’s congressional delegation don’t support the idea and likely won’t unless local opinion changes. And, given that budgets are stretched thin, the federal government isn’t likely to take on the burden soon of building and maintaining an additional park, even with Quimby’s land donations and maintenance endowment fund.

But we advocated for a study because we think residents and other stakeholders should know as much as possible about the proposal’s impact, instead of drawing conclusions with no solid information. The data we reviewed shows a national park is likely to boost nearby communities economically, but the growth would be modest within the context of the wider economic picture. It will be up to residents of the Katahdin region to decide whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, in their eyes.

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