BANGOR, Maine — After a lengthy discussion and public comment period, the Bangor City Council voted 7-2 Monday to support the concept of a national park and national recreation area in the Katahdin region.
The decision comes after Elliotsville Plantation Inc. — a group headed up by Lucas St. Clair, son of Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby — proposed donating up to 150,000 acres to the federal government for the creation of a new national park.
The proposal has reignited an old debate over land use in Maine and the future of the state’s stagnant economy.
“There’s been so much change and so much instability in the Katahdin region that people are really on edge about anything that’s affecting their community,” said St. Clair when asked if he anticipated opposition to the proposal.
Proponents of the national park proposal said during Monday night’s meeting that it is needed to bring economic diversity to the area and an economic boost to the region.
“It’s time to be bold about jobs. If there’s that smokestack industry, let’s bring them here, let’s make sure we do what we can, but right now, I’m not aware of any,” said Councilor Sean Faircloth, who sponsored the resolution.
Opponents said national park jobs would not pay as well as forest industry jobs and that for decades potential air quality standards that come with the proposed park have scared wood industry companies away from investing in the region.
St. Clair said the key message he is trying to get out is that the forest industry and national parks are compatible.
“At some point, it becomes my word versus their word, but if people do their homework and dig into it, they’ll realize the forest products industry exists around national parks all around the country, and there can be a totally symbiotic relationship between the two,” he said.
Opponents also said the park proposal could interfere with existing recreational opportunities and that Bangor may not see the economic benefit councilors anticipate.
“In most national parks now, they’re immigrants working at the parks,” said East Millinocket Selectman Mark Marston.
“If they’re immigrants that are seasonal,” he said, “historically, they send most their money home. You see it in Bar Harbor now, and it’s a concern.”
The proposal calls for St. Clair’s family to donate approximately 100,000 acres to the U.S. government toward the creation of a 75,000-acre national park and a 75,000-acre national recreation area where hunting, fishing and snowmobiling would be allowed.
David Farmer, a spokesman for EPI, said the proposed law would draw an acquisition boundary in which property would be purchased as it becomes available to achieve the 150,000-acre goal.
While opponents said that meant eminent domain laws would be used to forcibly take land from unwilling sellers, Farmer said “it’s always a willing buyer and seller.”
“If someone doesn’t want to sell, they can hold onto it forever,” he said.
St. Clair said the land would be purchased by his family’s foundation or by other philanthropic individuals and donated to complete the park and recreation.
The proposal also calls for a $40 million foundation to pay for much of the operation of the park, Farmer said.
Resolutions of support such as Bangor’s will help when Congress is approached with the proposal, hopefully next year, St. Clair said.
Monday’s decision garnered dissenting votes from Councilors Pauline Civiello and David Nealley, who said they feared it would unfairly affect the outcome of a planned referendum in East Millinocket set for June 11 in which voters there will indicate whether they support the park.
In response, Faircloth provided an email from East Millinocket Board of Selectmen Chairman Mark Scally in which he said the board “did not intend for that decision to cause any other town or city to delay their own council or board votes.”
Supporters thus far include the Medway Board of Selectmen and the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce. Faircloth said the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce and the Katahdin Area Rotary Club also have backed the concept.
Meanwhile, Millinocket officials told the council last week they are working to hold a forum with both sides and a national park representative to help decide whether they’ll support the proposal.
Monday’s decision comes after the council amended Faircloth’s original resolution to create one that Councilor Josh Plourde said shows deference to communities still grappling with the issue.
The resolution states the proposed park and recreation area could bring new jobs in the tourism, hospitality and retail industries while preserving traditional forest product activities, natural resources activities and recreation activities.
It notes that recent mill closures in Millinocket, Bucksport, Old Town and other locations have created a need to create jobs for the region.
The resolution urges members of the state’s congressional delegation and civic organizations to support the region’s effort to develop strategies that would lead to economic diversification and to become actively engaged in discussions surrounding the proposed park.
During a pre-council work session, the council eliminated language referencing two economic studies by Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based research group, that predicted the park could generate between 450 to 1,000 jobs based on national parks in other areas of the country.
Both studies were conducted at the request of Elliotsville Plantation Inc.
Faircloth said Monday he believes the national park and recreation area actually would create more jobs for the region.
Civiello and at least one resident objected to the resolution’s statement that the “City of Bangor supports the concept of a National Park and National Recreation Area” on the grounds that not all residents support it.
Those objections were overruled by the council.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.