May 21, 2018
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Group has no monopoly on preserving Fort Knox’s history, safety

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Fort Knox State Park will be adding some safety measures along high areas of the fort. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is building a fence and planting shrubs to prevent people from falling.
By Jonathan Royal, Special to the BDN

I have read with interest the ongoing public discussion regarding the proposal to add safety fencing to Fort Knox in Prospect.

Recently, it was reported that after many months of planning, the appropriate officials in the state and federal governments have signed an agreement to install new fencing, vetted by Maine’s historic preservation professionals.

While I appreciate the importance of preserving our shared historical past, I also recognize that public places must meet modern standards for safety, accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act and general comfort.

The fort now has bathrooms, electricity, a parking area, a ticket booth and even a picnic area that were not a part of the fort’s original design but are among the necessary additions to any facility that welcomes thousands of visitors each summer.

According to details published in the BDN, the fence will be 3 1/2 feet tall. That’s merely hip-high to a person of average height. According to information provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one-third of the fence will simply replace outdated chain fencing, and none of the fence will be visible from outside the fort except for from the parking lot or picnic area.

The Friends of Fort Knox, the nonprofit group that manages the site, has publicly criticized the proposal for detracting from the site’s historic value and has suggested the fence’s construction could close off parts of the fort to the public, even while they privately continue to ask the Corps to expand the project and close off a larger area. The group has also suggested the fence construction is an inappropriate use of federal Formerly Used Defense Sites funds.

As a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, I am offended and angered by the idea, expressed in the Friends’ letter to our congressional representatives that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is somehow acting inappropriately by funding and carrying out this project.

“The Friends have looked into this program,” they wrote, “and wonder whether the FUDS program is being utilized correctly.”

The hubris here is stunning. Having spent a few days no doubt poking around on the World Wide Web, the Friends now feel more qualified to make this judgment than the career officers of the most respected engineering organization in the world.

Apparently, their zeal for stopping this federally-funded project has also clouded their ability to recognize some basic political realities.

In her role as the Friends’ board chair, Carol Weston, a noted Republican leader, is asking both of Maine’s congressional representatives to intervene and stop the project. Aside from the fact that Fort Knox is not even in Rep. Chellie Pingree’s district, Weston seems to have forgotten the animosity she has engendered from Democrats in Maine during her service in Maine’s Senate and as Maine’s director for the conservative Koch brothers’ organization American’s For Prosperity.

It is even more remarkable that she expects Rep. Mike Michaud to come to the aid of an avowed supporter of Gov. Paul LePage within weeks of having announced he is running against the governor.

While the Friends admit that they have had opportunities to provide input at a public meeting and a subsequent follow-up meeting, they continue to complain that they have been unable “to provide meaningful input” to the Corps or state officials. The fact that they have repeatedly neglected to offer this input in a public way during several media opportunities suggests something else. The Friends are not interested in meaningful input; they simply want the state and feds to act as they demand.

Instead, they would do well to recognize that they do not hold a monopoly on how best to preserve a historic facility while keeping it safely accessible to the general public.

Jonathan Royal is retired and lives in Ellsworth.

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