Outdoors

LePage to Trump: Ax North Woods national monument

Posted Feb. 22, 2017, at 12:58 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 22, 2017, at 9:49 p.m.

Gov. Paul LePage has asked President Donald Trump to reverse an executive order by the Obama administration that created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and return the land to private ownership.

In a two-page letter dated Feb. 14, the Republican governor asks Trump to enact the reversal “before economic damage occurs and traditional recreational pursuits are diminished.” The Bangor Daily News obtained a copy of the letter Wednesday, and it was verified by LePage spokesman Peter Steele. Steele declined to comment further.

Calling President Barack Obama’s executive order creating the monument “a grave injustice … to the people and our forest economy,” LePage attached a letter from April 22, 2016, detailing his objections to the order.

It is unclear whether a president can undo an executive order creating a monument. Several attorneys general dating back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s have issued opinions that presidents lack the authority to abolish national monuments, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

If a return to private ownership is not feasible, LePage said, “I believe the land should be managed by the state of Maine to ensure it can benefit all Maine people and accommodate the region’s economic and regional needs.”

Lucas St. Clair, a leading proponent of the monument, said that the $40 million in endowments and fundraisers his family promised in support of the monument would vanish if the park’s management was transferred from the National Park Service. His mother, Burt’s Bee entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby, has worked to establish a national park in the North Woods since at least 2011.

“They would be losing a $40 million endowment,” St. Clair said. “I would do what I could to keep [reversal of the monument designation] from happening. I would work with the thousands of people who support this. But if it did [get rescinded], the investment would go away and the contractual law [that established the monument] with the federal government would be in jeopardy.

“It is a terrible, terrible idea,” St. Clair added.

Monument opponents were noncommittal or refused to comment on LePage’s letter.

Read LePage’s full letter.

When asked whether he supported LePage’s letter, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican and monument opponent, spoke only of his desire to help his district’s economy.

“My No. 1 priority in Congress is creating and protecting jobs in Maine. I want to do everything possible and help foster every opportunity for this to happen. I will be reviewing next steps in helping elevate economic growth in the Katahdin region and look forward to working with all groups and parties to ensure that the priorities and best interests of the local communities are put first, always,” Poliquin wrote in a statement.

Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, who was an early opponent of the creation of a national monument in Maine but said after its designation that the state should make the best of it, said early Wednesday afternoon that he had not heard about LePage’s letter to Trump.

“My reaction is that this is all in the federal government’s hands now, and as far as I know there is nothing we can do,” Stanley said. “The governor can make his recommendations, but our hands are tied. I think the governor is doing what the people want.”

Stanley said he’s concerned there is too much activity in motion to scuttle the project now.

“The only concern I have now is when it became a monument, people started investing money in the area,” Stanley said. “What do we do with all these people who are investing on projects right now? … Whether it was right or wrong, that’s irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that it did happen and we’re living in a different scenario than we were six months ago.”

The biggest development planned so far is probably a $5 million outdoor education facility that millionaire philanthropist Gilbert Butler, founder of the Butler Conservation Fund, hopes to open next fall. It is expected to use outdoor trails that will run to within a half mile of the national monument. Butler’s interest in the area predates the monument by about five years, but the monument’s presence adds to the area’s allure, his representatives said last month when the project was announced.

Speaking for himself, Millinocket Town Council member Jesse Dumais, a monument supporter, said he felt that reopening the divisive controversy over the monument would be unproductive.

Millinocket Town Council Chairman Michael Madore, a monument opponent, declined to comment.

Maine Snowmobile Association Executive Director Bob Meyers, one of the leading voices against the monument, declined to comment.

St. Clair and other monument supporters said they heard, anecdotally, that real estate values in the Katahdin region are rising and that businesses are hiring. Monument backer Dan Corcoran, owner of North Woods Real Estate of Millinocket, wrote an OpEd for the BDN o n Jan. 2 stating how “more than a dozen home sales” occurred in the Millinocket area in September 2016, a month after the president’s executive order, while “there were almost no home sales” in the same month a year earlier.

Turning control of monument land to Baxter State Park would restrict residents’ access to the land for hunting and snowmobiling, St. Clair said, while hunting and snowmobiling are allowed on monument land. The monument’s park service ownership has “ensured traditional access,” not denied it, he said.

The Baxter State Park Authority has expressed concern about its other park service neighbor, the Appalachian Trail. In order to preserve its wilderness as much as possible, Baxter strives to limit access to about 75,000 visitors annually, while the park service seeks to constantly increase its number of visitors.

Jensen Bissell, director of Baxter State Park, released a three-page open letter in September outlining his apprehension that monument visitors will cross the shared boundary with the park and imperil areas left largely untouched since Theodore Roosevelt visited them in 1879.

The Quimby family donated 87,563 acres for the monument to the federal government on Aug. 23. Obama created the monument the next day. Counting the cost of the land, a $20 million endowment and an additional $20 million in fundraising Quimby has promised, the gift is worth $100 million, according to the National Park Foundation.

A national park managed by the park service was long a dream of Quimby’s. Quimby’s quest to federally protect the North Woods took root more than a decade ago, when she began buying land near Baxter in 2001. Quimby announced for the first time publicly in 2011 some of the details of her dream — that she intended to donate about 70,000 family-owned acres east of Baxter as a national park.

Reactions to the governor’s letter on Wednesday were predictably negative from monument supporters. Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce President Gail Fanjoy said she felt that LePage’s letter is “an insult and a disgrace.”

“This governor has never ever reached out to the chamber of commerce to understand our views. He has never acknowledged that the monument has already had a positive impact on our region,” Fanjoy said.

Millinocket gift shop owner and former Town Council member Anita Mueller said, “This monument has already started to deliver economic benefits to businesses in the Katahdin region. Houses are selling again. People have hope.

“The governor has never even come here to talk to some of the business owners who are seeing increases in business because of the monument. His letter is completely irresponsible and a slap in the face to the people of the Katahdin region,” Mueller added.

Patten Board of Selectmen Chairman Richard Schmidt III, a monument supporter, described it as “unfortunate that our governor does not practice what he preaches in the form of jobs.”

“This monument has and will continue to create and sustain jobs while bringing economic prosperity to a region that desperately needs it,” Schmidt said. “LePage is doing everything he can to prevent these opportunities from happening but the days of one industry carrying this region are over. The value that the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument has started to bring to the Katahdin region is irrefutable, and the fact that it is still being contested is outrageous.”

Traffic drawn to the monument lands in 2016 drew a mixed response. Monument opponents decried the traffic counts as miniscule and representative of the lack of interest in what they called a collection of nondescript lands whose greatest asset is the view of Baxter. Supporters said they found the numbers promising, given the lack of road signs on Interstate 95 or the monument not yet being included much in park service advertising.

According to the last traffic count at the monument on Nov. 14, it drew 1,762 vehicles for the year, including 1,215 after Obama issued the executive order creating the monument in August, park service officials said. The yearly vehicle count exceeded the individual 2010 census estimates of the populations of East Millinocket, 1,723 people; Medway, 1,349; Patten, 1,017; Sherman, 848; and Mount Chase, 201 people.

The largest town in the Katahdin region, Millinocket, had a population of 4,506 residents, according to the 2010 census.

The vehicle count applies only to Loop Road traffic within the monument, not to hikers or vehicles that access the lands from the road to Baxter or logging roads. The loop road was closed for the winter to cars on Nov. 14, but snowmobiles and cross-country skiers can access the monument from other entrances, officials said.

Quimby and St. Clair said they supported the park service management of the monument because national parks and other park service holdings enjoy a worldwide reputation for excellence.

In 2016, park attendance nationwide shot up to an all-time high of 325 million visitors, compared to a record-breaking 307 million visitors in 2015.

Acadia National Park had an estimated 3.3 million visitors in 2016, the highest since 1989. That estimate represents a 17.5 percent increase over the 2.81 million visits the park is estimated to have received in 2015.

Monument proponents say the monument would have a positive impact on the Katahdin region if it drew just 1 percent of the annual traffic Acadia gets, which would be 28,100 visitors.

BDN writers Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Bill Trotter contributed to this report.

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