ORONO, Maine — A near capacity crowd of 1,400 people attended a forum on a proposed North Woods national monument on Monday at the University of Maine during which pro and con arguments followed one another in quick succession.
After a tense forum involving Katahdin region leaders in East Millinocket earlier in the day, where speakers were almost universally opposed to the proposal, the public meeting at UMaine’s Collins Center for the Arts showed the stark differences of opinion on the subject held by people around the state.
Fans of the monument proposed by the family of entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby, some of whom rode buses from Portland sponsored by environmentalist groups, praised it as a tonic that would put lovely woods on an international stage, draw thousands of tourists and create more jobs in a Katahdin region that needs them. Opponents, including forest-products workers, decried it as an oversold boondoggle that would impose an unwanted and unresponsive federal control on the area.
The UMaine forum was the second attended by National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis and U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. The first, at an East Millinocket higher education center, drew about 75 people.
Jarvis told the UMaine audience that many entrepreneurs have donated land to the park service, but said that Quimby’s offer of a $20 million endowment and an additional $20 million in cash to be raised by her was completely unprecedented.
The park service, he said, has no interest in expanding the proposed monument land beyond its present boundaries and would not — could not — use eminent domain powers to seize adjoining land.
Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son and a leading proponent of the monument, warned residents in the latter forum that a national monument “isn’t a silver bullet — no one thing is. But a major recreational attraction in the interior of northern Maine can be part of a new economic foundation that will create opportunities for new businesses to start and existing businesses to grow.
“All told, the national monument and endowment represent a $100 million investment in the Katahdin region and in the state,” said St. Clair, who made remarks before the floor was opened to questions at the UMaine venue.
The questions came steadily from people who lined up at microphones on both sides of the auditorium, with speakers alternating pro and con with questions or comments.
Bangor City Council Chairman Sean Faircloth cited three national monuments across the U.S. that he said created more than 1,500 jobs. He said placing the monument designation on the 87,500-acre Quimby parcel east of Baxter State Park would create “a tremendous economic boon.”
“It is printing money. It is bringing economic development, jobs and money to this region,” Faircloth said.
Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine wildlife biologist Gerry Lavigne said that more than 90 percent of his organization’s members have opposed the monument designation proposal.
“We feel that any national park presence in Maine will result in a net reduction” of access, Levine said. “Our greatest fear is that in 20 years, we will have something that locks people out of Maine’s woodlands instead of encouraging their use.”
Others said that the decimation of the state’s paper mills — five closed in the last six years — made a change in Maine’s economic focus inevitable.
“There is a lot of support out there in the local communities. I feel like I am here to reiterate that here,” said Mount Chase resident Lindsay Downing, who owns a lodge 16 miles from the northern end of the proposed monument space. “If a national monument or park were to come to the region, everybody would benefit from it. You would not see anybody sitting here right now if this land was not worthy of a national monument designation.”
Parker Lumber Co. co-owner Brian Parker said that a national park would have a negative impact on an industry that produces $7.5 billion in revenue for the state annually, and would hurt his mill, which draws wood from the forests within a 150-mile radius of the Quimby lands.
“The wood, the raw wood, is our lifeblood. I would like everyone to know that Maine’s woods are still working,” Parker said. “The industry is diverse. It’s a close network of families. This is the backbone of the state. We have to make sure we don’t make any decision that negatively impacts that industry.”
Steve Brook, spokesman for the Maine Council of Trout Unlimited, said the monument would help preserve some of the best fishing waters of the Penobscot, Seboeis and Piscataquis rivers, among others.
Maine Snowmobile Association Executive Director Bob Meyers said the monument effort represented “an admission of [the] failure” of the national park campaign that preceded it.
“Maine people know that this is not about conservation. It is about control and buying a legacy,” Meyers said.
Former Millinocket Town Councilor Avern Danforth took the opposite view.
“We need the branding of a national monument. You give us that opportunity, and we will make a new beginning,” Danforth said.
King told the audience at the end of the second forum that what he had just witnessed “was pretty special for the State of Maine.”
“We were polite, we were respectful,” said King, who has been a catalyst in the debate and set up the forums.
Earlier, at the East Millinocket event, Millinocket Town Councilor Michael Madore said that as a member of the National Park Foundation, Quimby had “a conflict of influence” over state and local leaders who have overwhelmingly opposed her proposal for eight years because she and her son have greater access to park leaders and President Barack Obama than they do.
“It is tiring, this perpetual cycle of saying no,” Madore said during the 2½-hour meeting at Katahdin Region Higher Education Center in East Millinocket.
Madore asked, “Why are we continuing to re-examine the same questions? Is it really for the good of Maine, or is it that Mrs. Quimby has an idea in her mind that she wants?”
“No governing body has recommended or wants this park or monument, not on any level,” Madore said, later adding, “this would be in our backyard. We ask that you please let this go, finally.”
Jarvis met at the education center with selectmen and town councilors from East Millinocket, Medway, Millinocket, Mount Chase, Patten, Sherman and Stacyville, who were themselves gathered in the same room for the first time in decades.
Out of the approximately 75 people there, two spoke in favor of the monument. The meeting was cordial but often tense. One man, a proposal opponent, was ejected for using an obscenity.
Patten Board of Selectmen Chairman Richard Schmidt III said that while Patten residents had voted against the proposal at an April referendum, “a good core” of local businesses supported the plan, which he said was a great opportunity.
“I believe we have the ability to channel this river in a direction that can serve us best,” Schmidt said.
Another man in the audience said that he represented “a silent majority” who supported the Quimby plan.
The forum followed a breakfast with Jarvis and the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce at River Driver’s restaurant just north of Millinocket.
No one can stop the president from signing an executive order turning Quimby’s land into a monument, said King, who earlier this year voted against a measure that would have moderated the president’s authority to designate national monuments. Obama has until Jan. 19, 2017, the very last day of his administration, to issue an executive order creating a national monument. Such monuments often become national parks later.
Obama, King said, sent Jarvis to Maine to gauge local response to the Quimby proposal and advise him. Jarvis said he appreciated the concerns residents have.
“I heard a lot of real deep honesty and I appreciate that. No one was holding back and that’s good, too,” Jarvis said. “I know some of you are worried in a big, big way and adamantly opposed to this.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Gerry Lavigne's name.