President Barack Obama signed into law the creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on Wednesday, beginning a new chapter in the history of a region in Maine that had been dominated by the forest products industry for more than a century.
The executive order assigns the 87,563 acres formerly owned by Burt’s Bees entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. It allows “hunting by the public on the parcels east of the East Branch of the Penobscot River” plus snowmobiling in certain areas and orders that a management plan be created, “with full public involvement,” in three years.
Fulfilling a promise made by National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, park service workers will be in Millinocket on Thursday at 200 Penobscot Ave., and visitors to the monument are welcome immediately. Another office, closer to the monument and in Patten, will open shortly, according to leading park proponent Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is due to visit the monument lands on Saturday, and as many as five public meetings, or listening sessions, are scheduled to start by Sept. 12 in the Katahdin region, park service officials said. Visitors can enter the park through its main entry off Route 11, which will be called the Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway, onto Swift Brook Road, and from the north via Route 159 and Grand Lake Road, according to the monument page at NPS.gov.
Obama’s announcement is the culmination of about four years of strenuous effort by St. Clair, who took over the campaign after Quimby’s initial effort faltered. It was for him typically a seven-days-per-week workload featuring hundreds of meetings and thousands of phone calls and emails. St. Clair hopes the designation will calm the political turbulence the campaign engendered, he said.
“It has been an all-consuming process. The biggest benefit is a decision has been made. We are no longer debating about whether it will happen. We can work together in a very different capacity now because we know what we are working on,” St. Clair said Wednesday. “That attitude is so exciting to me. Now we can talk about how we can make sure that” all the monument’s neighbors benefit from it.
Not everyone was pleased with the announcement. Three leading monument opponents, Republicans U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Gov. Paul LePage, had sharply divergent reactions to the executive order. Collins and Poliquin pledged to work with monument officials despite their opposition. LePage was bitter, saying that if “average Mainers don’t realize by now that the political system is rigged against them by wealthy, self-serving liberals from away, this is a serious wake-up call.”
“President Obama is once again taking unilateral action against the will of the people, this time the citizens of rural Maine,” LePage said in a statement. “The Legislature passed a resolution opposing a national monument in the North Woods, members of Maine’s congressional delegation opposed it and local citizens voted against it repeatedly. Despite this lack of support, the Quimby family used high-paid lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to go around the people of Maine and have President Obama use his authority to designate this area a national monument.”
St. Clair spokesman David Farmer said in response to LePage that “it is unfortunate that the governor is not interested in making this opportunity a success.”
The executive order praises the Quimby lands as being rich in culture, natural beauty and “significant biodiversity.” Describing the view the land affords as awe-inspiring, the order recites a history familiar to most Mainers including the visits of Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt and John James Audubon of Audubon Society fame.
“Since the glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago, these waterways and associated resources — the scenery, geology, flora and fauna, night skies and more — have attracted people to this area,” the nine-page executive order states. “Native Americans still cherish these resources. Lumberjacks, river drivers and timber owners have earned their livings here. Artists, authors, scientists, conservationists, recreationists and others have drawn knowledge and inspiration from this landscape.”
The executive order cites as one of the land’s greatest features something monument opponents will find ironic: Its proximity to Baxter State Park and view of Mount Katahdin. Monument foes derided the land as being essentially valueless without that viewshed.
“This post-glacial topography is studded with attractive small mountains, including some like Deasey, Lunksoos and Barnard, that offer spectacular views of Mount Katahdin,” the order states. “Katahdin Woods and Waters abuts much of Baxter State Park’s eastern boundary, extending the conservation landscape through shared mountains, streams, corridors for plants and animals, and other natural systems.”
The announcement of the signing was released by the White House at 10:30 a.m. It is the 25th executive order Obama has issued to create a monument since 2011. The monument is the nation’s 151st since 1906, according to a National Park Service listing. Of the nation’s 59 national parks, 36 began as monuments, including Acadia National Park.
Only Congress can create national parks, but presidents, under the American Antiquities Act of 1906, can create monuments simply by writing an order.
The Quimby family issued a brief statement thanking the Obama administration for its “hard work to safeguard America’s natural treasures and for their efforts to prepare the National Park Service for its next 100 years of success.”
“This designation is a fitting tribute to the ‘Centennial of America’s Greatest Idea,’” the statement concludes.
Officials running the monument’s neighbor, Baxter State Park, posted a notice on social media on Wednesday morning in anticipation of the decree.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with our new neighbor, the Department of the Interior. Baxter Park has 100 miles of boundary, and we share this boundary with around a dozen different landowners,” the statement reads. “We seek to have a good working relationship with all our neighbors, and we look forward to doing the same with our newest one.”
Tim Hudson of Bangor, a 49-year park service employee, has been named superintendent of the monument, Farmer said. Hudson has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached for comment.
Located east of Baxter, the monument is expected to increase employment in the Katahdin region, where two paper mills have shuttered since 2008. The closures represent a direct loss of about 430 manufacturing jobs. The last mill, in East Millinocket, closed in 2014.
Despite the loss of the mills, some of those still working in the forest products industry said they would work with the park service to help the region.
“While we are disappointed with the decision to proceed with establishment of a national monument in the Katahdin region, we will focus our efforts on ensuring that this decision does not cost jobs in Maine’s logging industry,” Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, said. “Maine loggers need reliable and safe access to the area’s working forests and the PLC will work closely with our congressional delegation, the communities surrounding the proposed monument and the U.S. National Park Service to address the very real access and road safety issues this monument creates.”
The order states that studies have shown that every dollar national parks draw generates $10 for the national economy. Most of the money stays in local communities. Park service holdings are a major part of an estimated $646 billion national outdoor economy, the executive order states.
Quimby’s dream, as she said when she launched her campaign in 2011, was to achieve a kind of parity with Gov. Percival Baxter by donating land to the National Park Service in 2016 — her gift to the nation that helped make her a millionaire. She began buying land in 2001.
The order describes the land as a “$100 million gift” and includes Quimby’s promised $20 million donation “for initial park operational needs and infrastructure development” and a pledge for another $20 million in fundraising.
The monument signing was supposed to be announced Thursday, the 100th anniversary of the creation of the park service, Farmer said. However, Penobscot County Registry of Deeds officials confirmed to the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday the passage of 13 deeds to 87,563 acres from Quimby’s company, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., to what was listed simply as “The United States of America.”
The total acreage is nearly twice the size of Maine’s Acadia National Park. Acadia, which began as a national monument in 1916, was the nation’s ninth most visited national park last year. It attracted close to 3 million visitors, who spent an estimated $247.9 million in local communities, in 2015, according to the executive order.
The executive order drew a flood of statements from monument supporters and opponents.
Park opponent Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said the executive order “seemed inevitable.”
Park opponents feared that Quimby’s $40 million promise in addition to the land would overwhelm all other concerns and saddle Maine with unwanted federal authority damaging to local autonomy and industries. Their most glaring examples include Acadia annexing a 1,441-acre parcel on the Schoodic Peninsula in April without consulting Congress or the the park’s advisory commission, in apparent violation of a 1986 law.
Another example: neighbors to Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument declaring an economic state of emergency in 2015, blaming federal policies for depressing their economy and leading to a steep drop in school population, about 20 years after President Bill Clinton created that monument. While there’s been significant spikes since that monument decree, the region’s unemployment numbers are about the same as they were in 1996.
“I hope we are wrong about a lot of things we think will happen. I suspect we won’t be. We hope it works out,” Meyers said.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, who revitalized the Quimby proposal in February 2015 when Millinocket officials announced that he sought their conditions for supporting a national park, said he has always been “concerned first and foremost with the economic well-being of the Katahdin region.”
“The question for me has been whether a designation would be a net benefit to the region and the state and also be compatible with the existing forest products industry as well as our long-held, and deeply cherished, tradition of open land use in Maine,” King, I-Maine, said in a statement. “The benefits of the designation will far outweigh any detriment and — on balance — will be a significant benefit to Maine and the region.”
“It is critical to see this as an opportunity fully compatible with our existing forest products industry, including potential growth in woods-related businesses. This isn’t either-or, it’s both — and will provide much-needed diversity to the region’s economy,” he added.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, called the designation historic and exciting and predicted the monument “will bring millions of visitors to this beautiful and special part of our state.”
“The American people owe a debt of gratitude to Roxanne Quimby for this incredible act of generosity. She worked hard to build a great company from the ground up, and the first thing she did when she sold it was to figure out how to give back to the people of Maine by donating this land. Generations of Americans will benefit from her gift,” Pingree said.
Collins, Poliquin and Maine state Legislature Republicans said the order should never have been issued, given the unpopularity of the monument proposal in northern Maine. The park service’s nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog, makes it questionable “whether the service can afford to manage this new federal acquisition,” Collins said in a prepared statement.
“Bypassing Congress and taking this action without the support of the state and the local communities circumvented discussions of alternatives such as the creation of a national recreation area or management by the National Forest Service — proposals that might have had broader support than the President unilaterally designating a national monument,” Collins said.
“All public officials must do everything humanly possible to help ensure local input as to how this new federal land will be managed. Our local job creators — not Washington bureaucrats — know best how to use our working forests and provide proper access for industries to create more jobs,” Poliquin said.
“President Obama was not elected to be a king, he was elected to be a president with a system of checks and balances,” said state House Republican leader Ken Fredette of Newport. “It is a simple fact that 70 percent of the people in this country believe this country is headed in the wrong direction. The actions of President Obama today, designating the national monument against the will of the Maine Legislature and the governor further erodes people’s belief in our Republican form of government.”
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, who visited Maine in June, accused the president of using the park service centennial “as cover to subvert the will of Maine’s citizens and leaders.”
“The only votes taken on this proposal, at the local and state level, have demonstrated opposition from Mainers,” said Bishop, who accused the president of hijacking “a moment of celebration to advance powerful elite special interests over Maine’s economy and citizens.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error. There are 59 national parks.