When East Millinocket and Medway overwhelmingly rejected Roxanne Quimby’s national park proposal last June, David Farmer, her media consultant, said “big ideas take time,” so supporters would continue “explaining the details of this incredible opportunity.”
You’ve heard the arguments. Supporters focus on the possibility of jobs in an area hungry for jobs. Opponents contend supporters exaggerate the job potential while downplaying the negative impact of national park restrictions on current and potential employers.
Did you ever wonder, though, why Quimby has failed to win over local residents, despite a massive public relations campaign, Washington lobbyists, large donations to environmental and community groups and a terribly battered economy? It became clear to me during a debate before those June votes.
Lucas St. Clair and Kristen Brengel of the National Parks Conservation Association spoke for the park. My boss, Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, and Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, spoke against.
Brengel talked about the great opportunity residents have to plan visitor centers, roads and “amenities.” She spoke of a shuttle from nearby towns and rangers “steering” and “funneling” tourists to the “right roads.”
“Think about how to steer people who come up here and have a Maine woods experience,” she urged.
I did think about it, and it just seemed sad. If someone is steered, funneled and shuttled, are they even having a “Maine woods experience?”
We enjoy the increasingly rare privilege of planning our own woods experiences because about 10 million acres of Maine’s working forest is open to the public, including 2.1 million acres protected by conservation easements. Baxter State Park, beloved by residents and visitors, offers the closest thing to a wilderness experience available in a park.
Quimby has made it clear that’s not her goal. Her park must be a national park so it can be branded and marketed. Her economic study estimated 451 jobs, but only if her park attracts a whopping 15 percent of Acadia’s 2.5 million annual visitors. That’s 375,600 visitors — six times more than Baxter, which averages 63,000 annually on 200,000-plus acres with 21 full-time and 40 seasonal workers.
Even if she donated the 150,000 acres she’s promised — she only owns about 88,000 — that’s quite a tight squeeze for 375,600 visitors. Steering, funneling and shuttling would be a necessity.
Quimby’s big idea hasn’t failed because the locals don’t understand it but because they do. And they don’t want to live inside it.
They’ve already lost their livelihoods through no fault of their own. They’ve endured other “big” ideas, many broken promises and much unsolicited advice and criticism, including most recently from Gail Fanjoy, president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, who described some park opponents as “locals who have had a lifetime of entitlement to the woods and waters” who have “to understand that they had a job in an industry that no longer exists.”
Despite all that, residents still are working hard on local and state efforts to attract businesses, including forest-related businesses. These are certainly difficult times, but there’s reason for hope. Maine still has what the world wants: healthy forests and hard workers. Global demand for pulp, paper, lumber and other wood products is actually growing. Maine’s mills are changing to meet that demand.
From toilet paper to diapers, tissue is one of the brightest spots in the industry. That’s why Woodland Pulp in Baileyville has invested $120 million in two large tissue machines. The print market is stabilizing for high-end paper, and mills in Jay, Madison, Rumford and Skowhegan make high-end paper. Sappi’s Westbook mill has its own niche, providing 40 percent of the world’s supply of paper that adds texture to everything from soccer balls to high-end clothing. Twin Rivers Paper in Madawaska produces specialty papers for publishing, packaging and labels, another growing sector.
Maine’s sawmills have spent millions to improve productivity, and loggers have done the same. Aroostook’s forest economy is surging. We have a new high-tech sawmill in Portage and active investment in our softwood sawmills. Weyerhaeuser just announced its plans to buy Plum Creek, merging the nation’s two largest corporate timberland owners, to capitalize on a recovery in housing construction.
So don’t blame the people of the Katahdin region for wanting more than seasonal jobs funneling tourists to “amenities.” Just like everyone in rural Maine, they need full-time jobs with a future. It will take all of us, working together, to navigate this new global economy and still preserve the way of life that make Maine so special.
Roberta Scruggs is communications director for the Maine Forest Products Council.