National park debate to reopen in northern Penobscot County; Lincoln chamber to hold informational meetings

Lucas St. Clair
Brian Feulner | BDN
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Posted June 10, 2014, at 4:32 p.m.
Last modified June 10, 2014, at 6:36 p.m.

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Kathy Johnson (left) North Woods Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine talks with Roxanne Quimby.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Kathy Johnson (left) North Woods Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine talks with Roxanne Quimby. Buy Photo

LINCOLN, Maine — A local business organization will be the first in northern Maine to publicly re-examine its stance on a proposed north woods national park with two meetings it plans to hold, organizers said Tuesday.

Lucas St. Clair, a leader in the national park effort and son of conservationist Roxanne Quimby, will speak to the Lincoln Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce about his efforts. The meeting will be held at Health Access Network on West Broadway at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 18. A meeting for opposing voices to the park will be held in July. No date has been set.

Chamber Executive Director Will Labrie and chamber President Betty Pomeroy said the group is revisiting the issue, after having opposed the creation of a park when Quimby announced her proposed gift to the National Park Service in 2011. They believe the recent economic troubles involving companies managed by Cate Street Capital — the New Hampshire investor that bought the Katahdin region mills for $1 in 2011 — are breathing new life into a park proposal that virtually all of Maine’s political establishment has opposed.

“The Cate Street situation definitely put the meeting potential in the forefront because there isn’t a lot in the Millinocket area and the park could be a good thing for that area,” Labrie said Tuesday. “We are fortunate that we are more of a service hub, and our thinking is that anything that will draw business there is good for us.”

Great Northern Paper Co. LLC, a company Cate Street launched to run the East Millinocket and Millinocket paper mills, is scheduled to auction paper mill equipment from the Millinocket site next week. The auction, along with the layoff of 212 of 256 workers in February, a failure to restart the mill within the company’s projected goal of 16 weeks and no news on its efforts to create a $140 million pellet mill at the Millinocket site, have local officials wondering what the company’s future is in the Katahdin region.

GNP is the largest single taxpayer for East Millinocket and Millinocket and is delinquent on about $3 million in property tax payments to both towns.

In March, a letter to the Maine congressional delegatio n announced that Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors changed its position from supporting a study of the park’s feasibility to supporting a park and proposed recreation area. Each would be 75,000 acres and located near Baxter State Park.

The meetings in Lincoln are “designed to be informational and kind of fact finding for those who know nothing about the park,” Labrie said. “We want it to be well-rounded and allow people to make their own decisions and be educated with all the facts.”

The June meeting with the chamber is part of a string of meetings St. Clair has held since he became the primary leader of his family’s efforts to create a north woods park more than a year ago, said Ian Grady, a spokesman for the Quimby family’s Elliotsville Plantation. That’s a private, Maine-based foundation that owns approximately 100,000 acres of land east of Baxter State Park.

“Our focus continues to be on having conversations with people in the Katahdin region about the benefits of a potential national park and national recreation area,” St. Clair said Tuesday. “I’m looking forward to speaking with the Chamber and answering questions about the idea. We are also encouraging folks to come see this amazing land for themselves. We believe a national park and recreation area can provide an important economic boost to the region while also permanently protecting traditional recreational activities.”

Gov. Paul LePage; the Maine Legislature; U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine; U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; and the town leaders of East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket have opposed the park. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has supported a park feasibility study. U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, is listening to the park idea but skeptical, his spokesman said Monday. Several sportsmen’s groups have opposed a park. If elected, independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler has promised to lead a Katahdin region revitalization effort that would include a park.

Besides the Katahdin chamber, several national environmental and tourism groups have endorsed the park concept. Park proponents have said a national park and recreation area represents at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in tourism income and 450-1,055 jobs for a region that needs both. They offered two economic studies that promised significant area growth. Opponents have decried the intrusion of federal authority they believe a park represents and expressed fears that it would dislodge traditional industries.

Anita Mueller, a park proponent and member of the Katahdin chamber, said she believes more people have become interested in exploring the park idea, given Cate Street’s issues. Mark Marston, an East Millinocket selectman who opposes a park, said he doesn’t see any renewed debate occurring.

“I have a problem with the federal government owning the land and the strict laws that go along with land that even borders the park,” Marston said Tuesday. “I think there is still room for the paper industry.”

“I think that people are considering it as something that needs to be looked at a lot closer given the current situation with the mills,” Mueller said. “[Our position] was never one or the other. Ideally, we would have a paper mill in East Millinocket, a pellet mill in Millinocket and a park.”

Anyone interested in attending the meeting can call the chamber at 794-8065.

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