Maine’s national monument will likely draw almost 15,000 visitors by the end of the year, more than four times the number of people who visited during its abbreviated first season.
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was visited by 7,162 vehicles for the year as of Saturday, the day its main Loop Road closed for the season.
Superintendent Tim Hudson said he conservatively assumes the vehicles, which registered on counters at three monument entrances, each carried two people, for a total of 14,324 visitors.
The monument drew 1,762 vehicles — or 3,524 people, by Hudson’s count — last year, including 1,215 after then-President Barack Obama issued the executive order that designated the monument in August 2016.
Northern Maine’s most controversial parcel since the designation, Katahdin Woods must draw swarms of tourists to live up to its billing and help the Katahdin region rebound from crushing paper mill closures.
Like virtually everything else about it, the monument’s allure has been disputed. Critics claim that its 87,562 acres east of Baxter State Park are nondescript and will be ignored by tourists.
Proponents champion Burt’s Bees entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby’s gift to the nation as a showcase of Maine’s forests that will need several years to become a significant tourist draw.
Reactions to the 2017’s vehicle count were, predictably, mixed.
“It’s exactly what we were all hoping for,” Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce President Jamie Brundrett, who owns Katahdin General Store, said. “We saw a pretty quick spike last year as soon as the designation happened. The forecast was good and that’s what we were hoping for.”
Monument foe and Maine Snowmobile Association Executive Director Bob Meyers called the turnout “pretty underwhelming.”
“That’s less people than came to our snowmobile show,” Meyers added.
Andrew Bossie, executive director of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, said the monument has been “great for the economy and for the region.”
“If we quadruple again, we will be at about 60,000 visitors next year,” said Bossie, who started as the nonprofit group’s director in September. “If you’re in the region, you can see that some businesses have expanded and, at least on the ground, people are saying that the traffic is up.”
Meyers compared Katahdin Woods’ season to Maine’s state parks, which according to counts provided by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands has averaged 63,148 visitors to each of its 41 properties so far this year.
Meyers predicted that the monument’s absence from the federal budget under negotiation in Washington, D,C., will leave it without funding for additional staff and infrastructure development.
The Quimby family’s foundation has funded improvements that include graded roads, new bridges, trails and other amenities. Volunteers have done much of the work, Hudson has said.
The 14,324 visitors is approximate to the population of the Katahdin region. The visitors came despite Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to deny Katahdin Woods signage on state roads until President Donald Trump decides what to do with 27 monuments he ordered reviewed, including Maine’s.
Trump has yet to act on recommendations made by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in late August. According to a leaked report, Zinke advised Trump to order Katahdin Woods opened to “active timber management,” which typically refers to tree-cutting for commercial sale.
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