BANGOR, Maine — Just days after the state Legislature killed a bill that could have complicated his goal of establishing a national park in northern Maine, Lucas St. Clair explained the plan — again — to a Bangor Public Library crowd on Tuesday evening.
At an event organized by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, St. Clair said he had spent more than two years and had “several hundred cups of coffee” in a quest to gauge opinion and convince others that a national park would rejuvenate a part of Maine that has struggled economically.
“Millinocket and East Millinocket once employed 5,000 people [at two paper mills],” St. Clair said of two towns that he thinks could benefit most if a national park were to be established. “Today, there are two people employed.”
St. Clair conceded that Tuesday’s meeting was largely a “preaching-to-the choir” type of event, as the NRCM supports the plan. But he said speaking to divergent groups — even those who might be largely in favor of his efforts — is important.
“It’s really about the economic benefits this will bring to the rural economy of Penobscot County,” he said. “But, I want as many people to know about what we’re talking about, and time and time again, I’ll talk to people who define themselves as well-educated about the specific project and then say something that’s just not true.”
St. Clair continually finds that he must distance the present proposal from a previous effort to establish a massive national park in northern Maine that was mounted by a group called “RESTORE: The North Woods.”
“They’ll talk about RESTORE, and say that we’re just trying to create a 3.2 million acre park,” St. Clair said. “That’s not what we’re trying to do. So this is to sort of set the message straight to as many people as I can.”
The land that would make up the 75,000 acre national park and a nearby national recreation area, which might total another 75,000 acres, where hunting, snowmobiling and ATV riding would be allowed, belongs to his mother, millionaire preservationist Roxanne Quimby.
In late March, the Legislature debated LD 1828, “An Act to Limit Consent Regarding Land Transfers to the Federal Government.” Some considered the bill, which would require state legislative approval before land could be transferred to the federal government, as a direct challenge aimed at St. Clair and Quimby.
The bill was eventually killed, as each chamber upheld majority “Ought not to pass” recommendations.
St. Clair said that even five years ago, during a period during which his mother’s park proposal was being widely criticized, the outcome may have been different.
“Five years ago, we probably would have lost that bill in the legislature,” St. Clair said. “Now we’re talking about real things. We’ve been able to hone down on what it actually is, and we’ve been able to hone down on it by talking to people and getting their input in doing what they’ve asked. It’s not my idea any more. It’s a community’s idea, and that’s very important.”
Now, he chooses to view the defeat of the bill as a sign that the pendulum has swung the other way. He says polling data indicate that people are increasingly supporting a national park plan, and while flexible, is still hopeful that the goal can be reached by 2016, the 100th anniversary of the national park system in the U.S.
“In some ways it gives me some encouragement, because I think in some ways the resistance to this [plan] is becoming almost this fringe element,” St. Clair said, pointing out that during a recent vote, the Katahdin Region Chamber of Commerce voted unanimously to support the park.
“[Opponents have] lost so many people that are surrounding them, and they’re throwing these outlandish things out there. Things that I don’t even have to go and try to defend against. The rest of Maine will do that for us. And LD 1828 was a perfect example.”
St. Clair said one key to the changing tide is the fact that every time his group says it’s going to do something, it follows through.
Actions, he says, speak louder than words, especially to those who may go into discussions expecting to be misled or ignored.
In September, St. Clair, the president of Elliotsville Plantation Inc., the company that oversees Quimby’s land in northern Maine, announced that the company would immediately open 40,000 acres to hunting and other “traditional activities.”
A common criticism of Quimby in the past was that she had no appreciation for hunting, snowmobiling and some other activities that had taken place on the land that she had bought. And when the multimillionaire bought land, she often refused to allow those uses on huge parcels.
Lisa Pohlmann, the executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said her organization has endorsed St. Clair’s vision of a national park, and is working toward that end.
“We think this is a wonderful opportunity to preserve land in the North Maine Woods,” Pohlmann said. “And it’s doable.”