EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Opponents and proponents of a proposed 150,000-acre national park accused each other of spouting misinformation during an informational meeting on the plan Wednesday night at Schenck High School.
Park supporter Matthew Polstein, who was not among the scheduled speakers, sparked the contentious debate with members of a panel during the event hosted by the Maine Woods Coalition, which opposes the park.
The anti-national park event was organized in response to a pro-park informational meeting held last month at Schenck in advance of a nonbinding town referendum on the issue next month.
When he approached the podium Wednesday night, Polstein, the owner of a restaurant and recreational facility outside Millinocket, said he was disappointed in several statements speakers made that he said were inaccurate or misleading. The speakers disagreed.
Among the inaccuracies, Polstein said, were statements that the 150,000-acre parcels that millionaire entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby and her son, Lucas St. Clair, would donate to the National Park Service in 2016 represent the loss of 60,000 cords of wood harvested annually and 342 of the 13,768 forestry jobs in Aroostook, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.
Those figures, Polstein said, are based on 2011 estimates of the state forest products industries. They are outdated or inaccurate because of the loss of thousands of industry jobs since then. Also, he said, Quimby has had her lands out of wood production for at least three years, so whatever effect there might be has likely already occurred.
Statistics park opponents presented on Wednesday portray the 150,000 acres “as being critical to the salvation of the industry,” Polstein said, “and they’re not.”
When reached for comment on Thursday, Selectman Mark Marston, who helped organize the forum, said the information was years old but represented the most recent survey data available on a potential park’s impact.
Park opponents on Wednesday answered Polstein with misinformation claims of their own. They said that St. Clair has promised a 150,000-acre recreation area and national park by 2016 when his family’s land management company owns far less – and not all of it is land east of Baxter State Park, the proposed venture’s site.
“It is kind of ridiculous to claim that you are going to buy land that isn’t for sale,” said Marston.
Previous statements from Quimby and management officials have said the family has about 126,000 acres in Maine.
St. Clair spokesman David Farmer said Thursday that 150,000 acres is a goal that would require additional land purchases and that maps the initiative lists on its website have always made that clear.
Quimby’s land-management company owns about 100,000 acres east of Baxter, he said.
Opponents said the $40 million in funding Quimby would donate or raise to fund the park’s maintenance represents about a third of the park’s likely budget. With a park maintenance backlog of about $12 billion, the National Park Service is unlikely to be able to handle the proposed park.
“They can’t maintain what they have now,” Preserve Maine Traditions member Andrew Young, who opposes the park, said Wednesday. Of the park plan, Young said, “It’s all smoke and mirrors.”
In response, Farmer said park construction costs are obviously not part of the proposal and that the “$40 million endowment represents a new model of public-private cooperation,” an investment he couldn’t imagine any community turning away.
Park opponents who spoke Wednesday said the park plan was vague. Many of the details that park opponents seek on the plan, such as what roads the park would use and what communities they would run through, are not yet available.
Those details would come, Farmer said, in the legislation federal delegates would propose to get the park made part of the National Park Service. Farmer didn’t know when that might be, but said he believed that enough information is out now for voters to make an informed choice.
Marston disagreed, saying that he believed the plan is too vague.
The town’s nonbinding referendum is set for June 25.