AUGUSTA, Maine — New legislation put forward by Gov. Paul LePage appears to take aim at proponents of a national park in Maine by giving the Legislature final say on large federal projects that would require the acquisition of state land.
The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee will review on Tuesday LD 1828, “An Act To Limit Consent Regarding Land Transfers to the Federal Government.” Rep. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, is sponsoring the bill.
Thomas said the bill would require state approval for federal projects exceeding 5 acres. It amends the blanket consent the state allows the federal government to acquire lands required for government purposes.
The idea, he said, is to preserve Maine’s sovereignty against federal incursion — not necessarily to deny the national park proposed first by wealthy landowner and environmentalist Roxanne Quimby and more recently by her son, Lucas St. Clair.
“The goal is to give the people in Maine the final say and not some bureaucrat in Washington. We should have the final say if there is a national park or anything else of any size,” Thomas said. “We may decide it [a national park] is a wonderful thing or we may not. To have somebody decide in D.C. or from Colorado doesn’t make any sense.”
Ian Grady, a spokesman for Quimby’s land-management company Elliotsville Plantation Inc., said the bill is restrictive.
“This proposal would place major new restrictions on what private property owners can do with their land. The potential impacts would go far beyond any one project and could hurt economic growth and conservation efforts around the state,” Grady said in a statement.
LePage added the bill about two weeks ago. The governor can place bills before the Legislature at any time during this short legislative session, unlike lawmakers, who must get approval of their bills before the session, Thomas said.
Thomas said he originally proposed the idea to the governor last fall. The bill cites its intent as being in accord with Article 1, Section VIII of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes the limits of federal power.
Quimby offered in 2011 to give the National Park Service 70,000 acres she owns adjoining Baxter State Park in 2016, the service’s 100th birthday. She said she would raise $20 million in a nationwide campaign to complement a $20 million endowment she said would pay for the park’s maintenance.
More than a dozen business, civic and environmental groups have expressed support for a feasibility study of Quimby’s plan, saying the study is a logical means by which to assess the park’s impact on the area. They say that a park could create a much-needed revenue stream in northern Maine and especially the Katahdin region, which typically has an unemployment rate that is twice the state average.
Proponents say a park would coexist well with the region’s forest products industries, bolster the region’s tourism and recreation industries, and preserve a portion of the region’s natural beauty.
Park opponents include the state’s two U.S. senators. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Quimby would best serve the state by running the park as a private concern. In January, U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told the New York Times that he was “opposed and skeptical but listening.”
“There is more receptivity to the idea because of the tough economic circumstances in that area,” King said, but changing his mind would mean convincing him that “that the benefits of economic development would outweigh the costs of losing control over a resource” to the federal government.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, LePage, some forest products industry representatives and all of the Katahdin region local governments oppose the park. The Maine Legislature strongly supported a joint resolution opposing a park study in June 2011. Only three senators voted in favor of it.
They recognized Quimby’s good intention of giving land to her country, but opposed the park because they feared it would detract from existing paper manufacturers, provide “trinket jobs” that paid poorly, and allow federal government power in an area that doesn’t have a federal presence.
St. Clair declared the 70,000-acre proposal “off the table” in 2012 and in September 2013 opened 40,000 acres of the land to hunting. That was a conscious decision that he hoped would help convince the public that the affected parcels are worth preserving as a park or national recreation area, he said.
In February 2012, St. Clair released economic studies commissioned by Quimby’s Elliotsville Plantation Inc. that showed that a 75,000-acre national park and same-size recreation area in the Katahdin region would create 450-1,055 jobs, but beyond that never specified how big the national park and recreation area would be.
The studies did not seem to move opponents.
There is currently a text error in the bill stating the size of parcels the federal government can acquire is up to 5 square miles. It will be corrected to 5 acres, Thomas said.
The committee will address the bill at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to Thomas.
BDN Outdoors Editor John Holyoke contributed to this report.