A lot of attention has been given to the proposed donation of land by Roxanne Quimby to establish a national park in the Katahdin region of Maine. A park of 150,000 acres is envisioned, with 87,000 acres currently owned by Quimby to be donated, along with $40 million to fund park operations. The balance of lands would be purchased over time from willing sellers as opportunities arise.
Local residents cite a number of concerns ranging from whether the lands in question are worthy of national park status to the prospect of losing control over land use decisions. Our experience as scientists for national parks provides a different perspective.
Congress declared in 1970 that national parks are to be outstanding representations of the broad spectrum of natural and cultural resources that characterize our national heritage. Parks also should offer opportunities for public enjoyment or scientific study and retain a high degree of resource integrity as a true, accurate and relatively unspoiled example of a resource.
The national park system does not yet fully represent our nation’s diversity of natural resources. Maine’s rich northern forest heritage, for example, is not reflected in the national park system. In terms of adding representation, the Quimby property would provide an example of the Laurentian Mixed Forest Ecoregion, described as a transition zone between the boreal spruce-fir forest to the north and the deciduous forest to the south.
The recreation values of this area were well acknowledged as far back as 1895 with the Maine Proprietors Association urging the state to turn this area into a state park to attract tourists. So there is little doubt of the superlative opportunities that exist for public enjoyment, but also for scientific study.
The opportunities for advancing scientific understanding of northern forested ecosystems, wildlife habitats, lakes and mountain environments that accompany national park designation would expand. Growing concerns about the potential impacts from projected changes in climate on wildlife and plant populations, timber production, and insect and disease outbreaks have accelerated research activities in Maine. National parks make excellent natural laboratories.
But does the proposed property retain a high degree of integrity as a true, accurate and relatively unspoiled example of a resource? Many authors writing about the Quimby property have rightly noted that it has been heavily logged, so it may be difficult to conclude that the property retains a high degree of integrity.
We must remember that national parks are long-term investments in conserving the nation’s natural heritage. Although these forests cannot be described as “old growth” or virgin, they can be described as harvested forests now in ecological recovery, on a trajectory to becoming an old growth forest.
There are precedents for establishing national parks in areas that had extensive land use challenges at the time of inclusion. Had the intense logging history permanently damaged the Great Smoky Mountains? Great Smoky Mountains National Park, established in the 1930s, is now one of the most ecologically rich and diverse protected areas in the world. We have found that national park areas, if managed for public use without impairment, can recover from early land use practices. Although the Quimby property has been heavily logged, this should not present an obstacle to national park designation.
Finally, each new national park has its own enabling legislation that shapes the activities allowed, often with strong roles played by a locale’s congressional representatives. Numerous examples exist of compromises in use to accommodate local traditions, from Grand Tetons National Park with its provision for hunting and cattle grazing to the continuance of commercial shellfish harvesting by the towns within Cape Cod National Seashore. The inclusion of traditional recreational uses on the Quimby property would not exclude it from consideration.
We hope everyone will support, as a matter of national pride, representation of our natural heritage in the national park system across all 50 states. Accordingly, we encourage support for Quimby’s gift that would provide representation for Maine’s forests in the national park system, while providing the traditional uses and enjoyment special to northern Maine.
Mary Foley of Carrabassett Valley is former regional chief scientist for the Northeast Region of the National Park Service. Michael Soukup of Blue Hill is former chief scientist for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.