A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson established 5,000 acres on Mount Desert Island as a national monument, the forerunner of what would become Acadia National Park.
Today, Burt’s Bees entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby seeks to create Maine’s second national monument, in the North Woods. After years of debate, President Barack Obama seems poised to decide this issue at any time.
If he designates the Quimby family’s 87,500 acres east of Baxter State Park as a national monument, Obama would become the second president to exercise that authority in Maine.
The moves by Quimby and her allies mirror the push 100 years ago that led to the creation of Acadia, an effort also driven by wealthy donors with pull in Washington.
The father of Acadia, George B. Dorr, who inherited a textiles fortune from his parents, began lobbying the Wilson administration in 1914 with support from John D. Rockefeller, Charles W. Eliot and members of the Pulitzer, Vanderbilt and JP Morgan families, according to Debbie Dyer, secretary and treasurer of the Bar Harbor Historical Society.
Dorr “went down to Washington regularly, and that was quite something in 1916. It wasn’t as if planes were flying there six to eight times a day,” Dyer said. “They had a contingent of these great people that were into making sure that [the Acadia monument] became a reality.”
But plenty of opponents hope Maine’s North Woods region has a very different fate than Acadia National Park.
Here are five things to keep in mind as the president weighs his decision.
Obama has executive authority
Obama’s authority to declare a monument is afforded to him under the 1906 American Antiquities Act. He has exercised that authority more often than any other president, declaring the preservation of the nation’s natural resources and heritage a priority.
Obama has created 22 national monuments and enlarged two more, a presidential record, according to the National Park Service. He has set aside more than 265 million acres, including some waterways.
President Bill Clinton designated 19 national monuments, followed by Theodore Roosevelt with 17 and Jimmy Carter with 15. Carter designated the next most space with more than 55.8 million acres, primarily in Alaska.
The process is ‘opaque’
Obama could issue the executive order at any time, through Jan. 19, 2017, the last full day of his presidency. Executive privilege, the legal right presidents have to private consultation, allows the decision-making process to be confidential.
Yet, the Obama administration has tried to make the process more inclusive, and Obama relies on several advisers to vet monument proposals, according to observers based in Washington.
“They have tried to create a process which isn’t required by law but gives them more of an appearance” of openness, said Corbin Hiar, who covers the monument campaign as a Washington, D.C.-based reporter at Environment & Energy Publishing. “But the bottom line is, the process is totally opaque.”
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis attended both as part of a fact-finding tour of the Katahdin region upon which, Jarvis said, he would base a recommendation to the president. Jarvis said he typically speaks through Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, his supervisor and a member of Obama’s cabinet, if the president seeks input.
If the president creates a monument in northern Maine, National Park Service officials would be on the ground in Maine the next day, Jarvis said. The fact that the monument would come with a $20 million endowment from Quimby, and another $20 million she has pledged to fundraise, might mean that the park service could begin working on it without waiting for a congressional appropriation, he said.
Key staffers have Obama’s ear
Jarvis still hasn’t made a recommendation, according to his spokesman. But the fact that Jarvis visited Maine bodes well for monument supporters, Environment & Energy reporter Scott Streater said. Seven of the president’s most recent executive orders creating monuments were preceded by visits from top-level administration officials, he said.
Jarvis also visited the Quimby lands in 2015 and came to the Katahdin region in 2011.
Besides Jewell and Jarvis, among those expected to help the president vet monument proposals are Christy Goldfuss, the managing director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Obama’s senior adviser Brian Deese, said Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Those are the two main people who will provide advice. They do on nearly every monument proposal,” said Brengel, who spoke in favor of a national park designation of the proposed land during a forum last year.
Monuments often become parks
Leading park proponent Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son, has said that a monument would be a stepping stone to an eventual congressional action redesignating his family’s land as a national park.
St. Clair confirmed in November 2015 that he had changed the focus of his campaign after it became apparent that none of northern Maine’s federal delegates — U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, both R-Maine, and King — would introduce a park bill.
It takes an act of Congress to create a national park, while a monument designation can be created by the president unilaterally.
The park service has 16 designations for its holdings. All of them have equal legal standing, but their definitions, even according to the park service, are vague.
Often called the crown jewels of the park service, national parks “are generally large natural places having a wide variety of attributes, at times including significant historic assets. Hunting, mining and consumptive activities are not authorized,” according to the park service.
Monuments are “landmarks, structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest situated on lands owned or controlled by the government.”
One of the drawbacks to monuments, opponents say, is that they aren’t advertised like parks, making the economic gains supporters promised with the North Woods park — such as 450 to 1,000 jobs — less likely.
Nothing is guaranteed
The apparently strong local opposition to the monument makes an executive order something less than a slam dunk, Hiar said. Gov. Paul LePage, Poliquin, the Maine Legislature and several neighboring towns are among those who have opposed a park or monument.
As the clock ticks down toward the end of Obama’s presidency, his decision about Maine’s North Woods is by no means a done deal, Hiar said.
“There are a lot of boxes that aren’t checked but there are also a lot of other reasons it might be appealing to this administration,” he said. “Stay tuned.”