Local landowners don’t favor a national park in the Katahdin region. Neither do many local officials or members of the congressional delegation who represent the Millinocket area. All of this support is needed for Roxanne Quimby’s land-holdings company, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., to create a potential national park and recreation area spanning tens of thousands of acres.
But while the odds appear stacked against the project despite Quimby’s generosity to give away her land, and the process of forming a park can be complicated, we’d like to make sure the economic view is clear. The choice cannot be between the park, which could create hundreds of long-term jobs, and some hoped-for but as yet unplanned vision of a new economy. To understand whether the park is worth pursuing, the region — and the politicians who stand in opposition — should offer likely alternatives.
Even if Quimby had not offended people with a 2011 interview in Forbes magazine, she would have still met fierce resistance from snowmobilers who want access to trails, from people of multiple generations being faced with having to change their philosophy of how they make a living and from those who oppose for ideological reasons the idea of government-owned lands. She may have underestimated, in the beginning, the amount of opposition she would encounter from those most affected by the siting of a park — people who have expressed great concern about losing local control.
But residents hold other deep concerns that exist aside from the park: the economy. The number of manufacturing jobs have declined dramatically. Millinocket’s unemployment rate in December was 18.5 percent, according to the Center for Workforce Research and Information. East Millinocket’s rate was 15.4 percent, and Medway’s was 15.5 percent. The state rate was 7.3 percent. The numbers represent real people searching for work who are worried about their own prospects and those for their children. In a 2011 interview with National Public Radio, one high school student in Millinocket said, “It really can’t get worse than it is now.” The worry, of course, is that it can.
So when recent studies suggest that a park and recreation area in the Katahdin region would likely create 450 jobs if it attracted just 15 percent of the visitors to Acadia National Park, residents will have to weigh the proposal carefully. Clearly people should have their specific concerns addressed — such as whether air quality standards for a park could inhibit industrial development or whether the proposal would obstruct the type of outdoor recreational activities enjoyed by many — but the larger economic picture cannot be forgotten. If not this, then what?
There are some developments underway in the region. Cate Street Capital subsidiary Thermogen Industries LLC is expected to open a torrefied wood facility in Millinocket, which aims to create a biomass alternative to coal and employ 20-25 people directly. The plan is to locate the facility at the site of the shuttered paper plant that once housed Great Northern Paper, and Cate Street is looking for a potential operator for the dormant paper machine there. More manufacturing jobs would clearly be welcome, but they are not certain. And it’s very unlikely, considering industry trends, that the area will return to the booming economy that sprang from the mills a few decades ago.
Opponents of the park are right to point out the many challenges of siting it, but they would help the region if they went further by proposing an alternative that helped the economy at least as much. Otherwise they could be caught waiting for a false dream, while the economy continues to disintegrate around them.