AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate on Wednesday narrowly approved Gov. Paul LePage’s bid to block the president’s authority to establish a national monument in Maine’s North Woods.
It puts the bill on track to passage, but it may just be a symbolic shot in a larger battle over public land rights: The bill faces constitutional concerns under the “supremacy clause,” which holds that federal laws take precedence over state laws.
But a supporter, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said while it “may or may not be legal,” the Legislature must “send a message” that “Maine land should not be forfeited” to the federal government.
“What we’re talking about here is surrendering our destiny of our forests in this state to a federal bureaucracy,” he said.
The Republican governor’s bill, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, aims to blunt millionaire entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby’s effort to get President Barack Obama to give national monument status to her family’s 87,500 acres east of Baxter State Park, near Millinocket.
It passed the Senate in a 18-17 vote, with the support of just one Democrat, Sen. James Dill of Old Town.
Three Republicans, Roger Katz of Augusta, Tom Saviello of Wilton and Brian Langley of Ellsworth, voted against it. Now, it faces final votes in both the Senate and House, where eight Democrats broke ranks with their party to endorse the bill last week.
Quimby and her family have been lobbying the Obama administration to give national monument status to the land, which doesn’t require congressional approval. It would be seen as a first step toward Quimby’s ultimate goal of a national park, which would require congressional approval.
That effort is one of Maine’s hottest issues. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Bruce Poliquin told the Obama administration in November 2015 that they have “serious reservations” about the idea based on local opposition.
The park’s opponents have cited its impact on the logging industry and the park idea faces significant local opposition, as evidenced by staunch advisory votes against it in Medway and East Millinocket last year.
But its proponents, including the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce and other business and conversation groups, have pitched it as a massive economic development opportunity for the region.
That has won over most Democrats, with Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, a bill opponent, calling it “a case of the state meddling in private rights and federal authority.”
The legal argument also weighed heavily on the bill’s opponents. Environmentalists have raised constitutional concerns, and an assistant Maine attorney general said at a legislative hearing that no state law could accomplish LePage’s goal.
“We’re going to get sued” if the bill passes, Katz said on the Senate floor. “We’re going to lose, and we’re going to waste several hundred thousands of dollars of taxpayer money in the effort.”