Penobscot County commissioners divided on whether national park would help faltering Katahdin region

Lucas St. Clair pitches his proposal for a 150,000-acre national park and recreation area at a Penobscot County commissioners meeting in Bangor on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2014.
Nick McCrea | BDN
Lucas St. Clair pitches his proposal for a 150,000-acre national park and recreation area at a Penobscot County commissioners meeting in Bangor on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2014. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 19, 2014, at 4:09 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Penobscot County’s commissioners are divided on a proposal to establish a 150,000-acre national park and recreation area in the Katahdin region.

Commissioner Peter Baldacci is vehemently supportive, arguing the park would boost the economy in a region where the historically dominant paper industry appears to be in its death throes. His colleague, Commissioner Tom Davis, said he has too many concerns about unanticipated fallout to back the proposal and questions whether the jobs it would bring will be enough. The commission’s third member, Laura Sanborn, said she remains unconvinced by either side and would like opponents to sit down with organizers to see whether their worries can be resolved.

Lucas St. Clair, the park’s leading proponent and the son of environmentalist and entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby, pitched the idea to the commissioners during a meeting in Bangor on Tuesday morning.

“I saw [the Millinocket area] in its heyday, and I know what it once was,” St. Clair said.

With the demolition of the Millinocket paper mill and hundreds of layoffs at its neighboring Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket, the old ways won’t work anymore, St. Clair said. Unemployment is climbing, and young people are leaving.

He said the region should “capitalize on its natural resources in a new way,” using them to draw more and new visitors to Maine’s vast wilderness.

Private studies commissioned by Elliotsville Plantation Inc., the foundation that oversees Quimby’s land in northern Maine, indicated a national park would create 200 jobs directly and at least another 250 indirectly. “On the high side, 400 to 1,000 jobs,” said St. Clair, who is president of the foundation.

Elliotsville Plantation owns 129,000 acres. The proposed 150,000-acre area would be bisected by the East Branch of the Penobscot River near Baxter State Park, with 75,000 acres set aside for the national park and another 75,000 for a multi-use national recreation area.

The park land would be donated to the National Park Service, along with a $40 million endowment fund raised by the foundation to cover costs associated with upkeep and maintenance since parks funding has been hard to come by in recent years.

St. Clair gave no precise timeline for park creation, but he said Congress could pass a park bill for President Obama to sign in 2016, on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which would capitalize on the anniversary celebration. Others believe the process would take several years and would need more public and congressional support than it has now in order to move forward.

A commission vote in favor of or in opposition to the park would be a largely symbolic gesture, according to administrator Bill Collins. Still, it would add another feather in the cap for St. Clair and his family or more ammunition for opponents depending on how the chips fall.

Baldacci said the economic situation for the Northern Penobscot region is becoming more and more dire, and he said something needs to be done to rebuild the economy before it’s too late.

“The region needs this,” he said. “It doesn’t need more roadblocks thrown in the way.”

Davis said the “jury was still out on this.”

While the area is beautiful, Davis said, he’s concerned it doesn’t have distinguishable, marketable landmarks that other national parks in the country can boast, which might make it difficult to draw people to northern Penobscot County, he argued. He also said he shares concerns with several residents and local officials who worry federal regulations, such as air quality standards, might stifle future development in the area if a park is established.

St. Clair argues there is more than enough beauty and recreational opportunity in the Maine woods to draw people from around the globe. He said studies indicate the park could draw some 300,000 visitors annually, spurring new hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Davis questioned how valuable those service sector jobs would be to the region and was concerned that many of them would be part-time or seasonal workers with low pay.

Former state Senate President Charles Pray, who has been critical of the plan and attended Tuesday’s meeting, said “Quimbyworld” would “change the culture” of the land and its residents by drawing in people “from away” who would build lavish homes and camps as they descend on the rural area to take part in its opportunities. Still, he said he was open to continuing to talk about the idea.

St. Clair has been pitching the national park and recreation area idea to people in the North Woods since 2011. He insists the tide is turning and said that more opponents and skeptics in northern Penobscot County are being swayed by the economic potential.

St. Clair said he hopes to meet with opponents and concerned residents in coming months in the hope of resolving their worries as he continues his efforts.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.

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