EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine – Residents voted 320-191 against a proposed 150,000-acre North Woods national park in a nonbinding referendum on Monday.
The 40 percent of registered voters who participated in Monday’s polling exceeds the 36 percent of r egistered balloters in Medway who rejected the park, 252-102, in a nonbinding vote on June 23.
Several East Millinocket residents explained why they disapproved of the plan.
“I don’t think we need a national park,” resident John Miner said Monday. “I don’t see any real benefits from it.”
“I just don’t see what we are going to get from this,” said resident Valice Austin. “If we were about 60 miles closer to where they want to put it, I think we would probably get something from it.”
The two towns’ votes might be crucial to whether the state’s federal delegation supports the proposal backed by Lucas St. Clair and his mother, noted entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby. They want to give the National Park Service as much as 75,000 acres for a park and another 75,000 acres for a multi-use recreation area, both on family-owned lands east of Baxter State Park.
Ted O’Meara, spokesman for Maine Woods Coalition, which opposes the park, said the negative votes “should send a very clear signal” to the delegation.
“The people closest to this don’t want it,” O’Meara said. “They don’t want it, don’t feel it will create jobs or that it is a good idea. I think we can take from [both votes] that they feel that the future of this area lies with existing recreation and forest products businesses.”
Proponents said the plan would generate 400 to 1,000 jobs, be maintained by $40 million in private endowments, diversify a Katahdin-region economy devastated by the closure of two paper mills, and coexist with existing industries while preserving the area’s recreational and manufacturing heritage. Quimby offered the donation as a gift to the nation and as an attempt to preserve a small portion of the largest tract of contiguous forest in the Northeast.
Park opponents have said they fear a park would bring unwanted federal authority into Maine, cramp the state’s forest products industries with tight restrictions, generate only low-paying jobs and morph into a 3.2 million-acre park plan offered in the 1990s.
St. Clair spokesman David Farmer said the vote would have no impact on the park campaign.
“Tomorrow we go back to having conversations with people about the park. We will continue to do what we have done,” Farmer said Monday. “The votes themselves are nonbinding straw polls but the issue is much larger than that.”
“Once you get outside the [Katahdin] region, support grows exponentially for the park,” Farmer added, “so we will continue to work on this. The issue will ultimately be up to the congressional delegation. They [delegation members] have a much larger constituency than Medway or East Millinocket.”
Through its nonprofit foundation, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., the Quimby family owns about 87,500 acres within the proposed park and recreation area boundaries. That’s about 66,000 acres within the park area and 21,500 in the multi-use recreational zone.
Resident Robert Scott said he voted for the park because he felt the town needed to get beyond the idea that the forest products industry can meet the region’s needs. The town lost 212 good-paying jobs when the Great Northern Paper mill shut down on Feb. 6, 2014.
“It’s the past,” Scott said. “It’s a very honorable past, but we need to find some way to move on. I think that with the park, we have a wonderful opportunity to put back into the community.
“Restaurants, hotels and other businesses will come in here because there is a national park,” Scott added. “Nobody has yet to prove to me that this [proposal] is a bad thing. I think it is a good deal for everybody.”
The Quimby family has backed the idea since at least 2010, but the concept gained new life when Millinocket officials revealed on Feb. 7 that U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked for their requirements of a park should legislation be written seeking one.
East Millinocket previously rejected a park service study of the proposed park location with a 513-132 vote in 2011. Farmer said he was encouraged that compared with the 2011 election, the number of park opponents has declined.
“We believe that this shows that we are gaining traction and that more people are coming to our side,” Farmer said. “Despite the [losing] margins in Medway and East Millinocket, we are only talking about a difference of 278 votes.”