Over the last four years, support has been growing in the Katahdin region, around Maine and across the country for a new national park and national recreation area on up to 150,000 acres east of Baxter State Park.
The proposal has been fine tuned through countless conversations with supporters and residents in the area and is ready for implementation. As the Bangor Daily News stated in endorsing the project, “we and the majority of Mainers believe the time has come for a national park and recreation area.”
Every poll has shown strong support. For example, a 2015 poll conducted by a nationally respected Republican polling firm showed that 67 percent of voters in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District support the proposal.
No other economic development opportunity on the horizon begins to approach the job-creating potential of this $100 million investment of land and an endowment.
The $40 million endowment to be provided for annual operating costs would help ensure success. Some of Maine’s most respected economists have reviewed the proposal and concluded it would create hundreds of new jobs in a region that has suffered multiple paper mill closures and economic hardship.
This investment will pay off for local people and the entire state.
Hundreds of businesses, including wood products, outdoor recreation, hospitality and retail stores, have endorsed the proposal, as have the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce, the Bangor City Council and the Maine Innkeepers Association. The entire state would benefit as more visitors are drawn to the national park and recreation area, spending money and time not simply at the park but also at many other Maine attractions along the way.
Meanwhile, mills in the region are being carted away for scrap. Schools and the local library are struggling to stay open. Population in the region has steadily declined, as residents of all ages leave because economic opportunities have disappeared. With the loss of its mill, Millinocket’s property tax rate is among the highest in the state.
Next year marks the 10oth anniversary of the National Park Service. Plans are underway to celebrate the anniversary and launch the National Park Service into its second century. Our national parks are known and loved around the world, annually drawing tens of millions of visitors. The creation of a new national park and national recreation area in Maine would be a golden opportunity to shine a bright, positive light on the tremendous history, heritage and natural resources of the Katahdin region.
The proposal can move forward along two different paths: Congress can pass a bill to create a national park, or the president can designate the area as a national monument first and Congress can pass a bill later to make it a national park.
Faced with congressional gridlock, the national monument strategy makes most sense as a first step. To this end, Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Bruce Poliquin recently sent a constructive letter to President Barack Obama with a list of nine conditions to be included in a national monument designation. These conditions would protect local priorities, such as protected snowmobile corridors, proper forest management and establishment of a local and state advisory board.
Securing the land as a national park and national recreation area would be the best final outcome for bringing economic benefits to the region because national parks have a strong brand that attracts visitors from around the world.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created the first national monument: Devils Tower in Wyoming. Now there are 117 national monuments protecting places of natural, geologic and historic significance. Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, Zion in Utah and Denali in Alaska all were first designated as national monuments. Acadia was designated as a national monument in 1916 and became a national park three years later. Today, Acadia National Park contributes $200 million annually to Maine’s economy.
The land being considered for a national park and national recreation area east of Baxter State Park has spectacular wildlife, rivers, ponds and mountains that will inspire visitors and entice them to explore other parts of interior Maine.
With a path identified in the congressional delegation letter to the president, forward motion can take place in 2016. As the Bangor Daily News editorial stated so well, “This would be an ideal time to add a small part of Maine’s famed North Woods to a system with a globally unprecedented legacy for preservation.”
Lisa Pohlmann is executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.