February 28, 2020
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National park boosters tout imaginary numbers for imaginary park

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

It has been repeated so many times it has become a mantra: 450 to 1,000 jobs, 450 to 1,000 jobs from a new national park. There is one major problem, though: They are only imaginary numbers.

The numbers Roxanne Quimby and Lucas St. Clair keep pushing at us go back to a study they commissioned in 2013, when they hired Headwaters Economics to do a report on the economic performance of other similar parks around the country. They chose six “peer regions” that supposedly are similar to the Katahdin area, but in reality those “peers” bear little resemblance to it.

Each of those regions has economic engines that rely very little on the parks. It also should be pointed out that the report did not study the benefits a proposed park actually would bring to the Katahdin region nor did it actually predict jobs for this region. As stated by Ray Rasker, the author of the report, in an email to me, “We did not do any job predictions, we looked at similar units around the country and offered a range of jobs that those units created as a basis for people to imagine what might be possible.”

Take a look at several parks “imagined” as Katahdin peer regions:

Congaree National Park: It’s 13 miles from downtown Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, in a metro region with a population of 850,000 located within one hour of 6 million people. Home to 50,000 students, the University of South Carolina football team typically draws 80,000 people every other Saturday each fall. It also is home to Fort Jackson, with 75,000 U.S. Army troops rotating through each year. Just like Millinocket?

Badlands National Park: The Rapid City, South Dakota, area is home to Ellsworth Air Force Base, one of the largest air bases in the country. It’s a main service center for a little motorcycle rally that draws 600,000 people each year at Sturgis. The area also is home to Mount Rushmore and two other national parks. Just like East Millinocket?

Zion National Park: The St. George, Utah, metro area has a population of 145,000 and is located along interstate highways that connect Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Denver. The area is home to distribution centers for Wal-Mart, Family Dollar and other national retailers. It also is home to Skywest Airlines, with 10,000 employees nationally. On top of all this, it is the gateway to four other national parks or recreation areas: North Rim Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Glen Canyon and Lake Mead. Just like Medway?

The reality is, Headwaters chose communities that have strong economies and, coincidentally, happen to have a national park. It is why we are left with only imagining their numbers. They don’t hold up to scrutiny. Can anyone seriously believe these are “similar” regions to the Katahdin area?

The Headwaters report also did not predict visitation numbers. The analysis again imagined what would happen if 15 percent of Acadia’s traffic veered north.

When would this magic day arrive? Forty years down the road? Sixty years? It imagines a park with amenities just like the peer regions have.

But to attract these imagined visitors, this proposed park would need hundreds of miles of scenic tar roads, bike paths and trails. It would need visitor centers, picnic areas and campgrounds, along with potable water, power and sanitation systems.

St. Clair says the park can be established and managed with a $40 million endowment: $20 million would come from the family’s foundation, and the other $20 million would be raised. Yet Quimby stated to the National Park Service in 2011 that an expected 4 percent annual return on her endowment would provide less than two-thirds of the yearly operations, or nonconstruction, budget for the proposed park. With only $20 million currently on hand, that’s an endowment that can yield less than a third of the annual operating budget. With St. Clair’s latest proposal doubling the acreage from the 2011 plan, one must assume operating budgets also will rise.

The National Park Service might not be able to provide much support. It reported in March it has a maintenance backlog of $11.5 billion. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the park service would need up to $350 million more per year in these tight budget times in order to keep the backlog from growing.

So where would the money come from to build this park? The reality is, we are supposed to imagine a park that never will exist — at least not one that will bring about anything like the visitors and job numbers they imagine.

Andy Young of Lincolnville is a founding member of Preserve Maine Traditions, a group that works to preserve Maine land use traditions.

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