AUGUSTA, Maine — While proponents continue their efforts to set aside 150,000 acres in northern Maine for a national park and recreation area, Gov. Paul LePage voiced his opposition to the plan in a letter addressed to President Barack Obama.
A company called Elliotsville Plantation Inc. wants to donate the land to the federal government, along with a $40 million endowment for management of the land. The plan is for half the land to become a national park, while the other half becomes a national recreation area. The plan would require an act of Congress, but no bill has been drafted yet.
The letter to Obama was dated April 22, which was Earth Day. In it, LePage outlined the reasons he opposes the plan.
The governor cited concerns about a loss of available land for hunting, all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile use and commercial timber harvesting that would go with handing over the land to the National Park Service. He also dismissed a peer-reviewed study that demonstrates the potential economic benefit of a new national park and said he worried the plan could reduce traffic and visitation to Baxter State Park, home of Mount Katahdin.
LePage also bristled at the loss of state control that would come with the plan.
“When there are problems with Maine’s state parks, Mainers know whom to call to get these issues resolved,” he wrote. “Federal oversight, however, means Mainers would be dependent on a largely unaccountable and faceless bureaucracy hundreds of miles away to resolve their problems.”
David Farmer, a spokesman for Elliotsville Plantation Inc., said Thursday the group’s board president, Lucas St. Clair, recently met with a member of LePage’s staff but so far has been unsuccessful in meeting with the governor himself.
“We’re disappointed that the governor decided to send this letter before giving us a chance to discuss the enormous economic potential of the national park and recreation area with him,” Farmer said. “But the letter won’t change our approach. We are seeing support grow every day. We are going to continue to talk with people about the merits of the proposal.”
Farmer said concerns about outdoor recreation activities were what prompted the group to propose splitting the land, rather than devoting the full 150,000 acres to a national park. He noted that while such a park would be off-limits to hunters, trappers, snowmobilers and ATV users, a national recreation area would allow for those activities and others.
Proponents of the plan say it would boost the Katahdin region the same way that Acadia National Park — with its millions of visitors annually — sustains Mount Desert Island and the surrounding communities. A study conducted by Montana-based Headwaters Economics said the park could create more than 1,000 jobs. That’s all the more important, proponents say, given the devastating paper mill closures in Millinocket and East Millinocket that many fear was the death knell for the region’s economy.
Park opponents have said national park rules are too strict for the region, which welcomes a wider variety of outdoor activities than would be allowed by the federal government. They also say it would cramp the state’s forest products industries with tighter air-quality restrictions and generate only low-paying jobs — a far cry from the jobs at the mills that supported the region’s middle class for decades.
Some even fear the plan would spin out control, growing to rival a 3.2-million-acre park plan offered in the 1990s.
Gail Fanjoy, president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, which supports the proposal, said she was “appalled and extremely disappointed” by LePage’s letter and contrasted the park plan with recent efforts by the state to attract capital to invigorate the Great Northern Paper mill.
“We are on life support up here,” she said. “The fact that he calls this a ‘scheme’ in his letter is incredibly insulting when it comes on the heels of the real scheme, which was Maine’s New Market Tax Credit — returning millions of dollars to investors who did absolutely nothing for us.”
Elliotsville Plantation Inc. recently held a telephone town hall, attended by more than 5,000 participants, to discuss the park. The group cites polling that shows growing support for the plan.
Two towns in the Katahdin region plan to hold public votes to gauge support for the proposed park. East Millinocket will hold a nonbinding referendum on the park on June 11. Medway will hold a similar vote June 23.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.