PORTLAND, Maine — Greater Portland may have the population and economic base to tip the scales in the controversial national monument debate — even though the region is hours away from the land in question, and many people neighboring the property have said they don’t want it to fall into federal hands.
At least one expert suggested the political will of the southern half of the state is powerful enough that the establishment of a national monument is, at this point, a foregone conclusion. The only drama left is in how Maine’s highest-ranking politicians handle the fallout, he said.
“Southern, central and mid-coast Maine are where the votes and economic power are,” said Jonathan Reisman, associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias. “It’s a political fight now over accountability or lack thereof, not a park-monument-no park policy debate. We’ll have a ‘Thoreau Maine Woods National Monument’ before 2016 ends.”
Lucas St. Clair, son of Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby and chief proponent of the national monument plan, was invited by the University of Southern Maine’s Kappa Alpha Omicron honor society to give a talk about the effort Monday night.
His family has proposed designating 87,500 acres it owns near Baxter State Park as a federally recognized national monument, a move that could pave the way for it to later be established as a national park.
“There are 17,000 people in the entire Piscataquis County. There are more people in my neighborhood in Portland,” St. Clair told a small Portland crowd of about 20 people. “These towns are shrinking. It’s very frustrating to me that our state congressional delegation and our governor, they may not be in favor of this, but they have to focus on [finding some way to reverse the decline of the Katahdin region.]”
The proposal has been divisive. More than 62 percent of voters in nearby East Millinocket and more than 71 percent of those in Medway opposed the national park plan in nonbinding referendums held last year.
But the total number of voters who turned out between the two towns was 865. That’s smaller than the typical turnout at a single voting precinct in the city of Portland, which has 12 of them.
So it’s easy to see how park supporters can say their polling shows more than 67 percent of Mainers statewide support the plan.Those support numbers were bolstered by a 71 percent approval percentage in the Portland-Auburn television market.
That heavy southern Maine support has come despite a lack of concentrated effort by St. Clair to foster it. He said Monday night’s talk at USM was only his second presentation on the proposal in Portland in the five years he’s been working on the effort.
President Barack Obama — who has the power to designate national monuments and has protected more acreage in public lands than any other president in history — may not take the time to parse out where in particular the pockets of support and opposition are.
“If the Department of the Interior or executive branch is considering this, they may not differentiate between the 2nd District and the 1st District, and maybe supporters could use support in southern Maine to say ‘a majority of Mainers are in favor of this,’” said Ronald Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine.
Reisman said he believes Obama would have designated the property a national monument already if not for concerns the move would turn northern Maine voters against Democrats in a year in which freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin — an opponent of the monument plan — is running for re-election up there.
He predicted the president will make the announcement after the election, and said the drama left to play out will be in how the state’s two U.S. senators decide how much blame or credit to take for the move.
But while rallying support in southern Maine may help St. Clair’s case in Washington, it may hurt it among people nearest the property. Mark Brewer, political scientist at the University of Maine, said those are the constituents who could convince the state’s congressional delegation to support the next-level change from a national monument to a national park, which must be approved by Congress.
The Maine Legislature this month narrowly approved a bill — proposed by Gov. Paul LePage and sponsored by Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway — that seeks to thwart the project by requiring state consent for donations of land to the federal government, but some park proponents have called the measure unconstitutional.
Brewer called national monument talks in Portland “problematic in terms of political optics.”
“Anybody anywhere in the state could play a role in this,” he said. “But I think most would agree that the role for a place like Portland should be smaller than the role for a place like Millinocket.”
Charles Pray, a current Millinocket town councilor and former state Senate president who worked in the Clinton White House, said rallying Portlanders around the idea of a national monument will help park supporters “counterbalance the fact that two-thirds of the people in the local community are opposed to it.”
“ The farther away [from the Katahdin region] he goes, the better his support is,” Pray said of St. Clair. “[Portland audiences] are easier targets, because it’s not in those people’s backyards. It’s much easier to sell people on a project that’s in another part of the state. … It’s easier to sell an idea where it’s not directly impacting people.”
Park opponents have said they fear the proposal would bring unwanted federal authority into Maine, place unsafe traffic burdens on what have been primarily logging roads, cramp the state’s forest products industries with tight restrictions and, to the degree it spurs economic activity, would generate only low-paying jobs.
Proponents have countered the designation would create up to 1,000 jobs, be maintained by $40 million in private endowments and diversify a Katahdin-region economy devastated by the closure of two paper mills.
David Farmer, spokesman for St. Clair, said Monday Portland area residents deserve to have a say in the national monument debate, even if it’s not in their backyard.
“This type of investment could create hundreds of jobs in the Katahdin region, and that would have an impact across the entire state. This idea that what happens in one part of the state doesn’t impact the other parts of the state just is not true,” Farmer said.
“If you look at the economy of Maine as a whole, rural areas have been hard-hit and have not come back from the recession the same way some of our urban areas have. And that puts increased pressure on property tax payers and school funding and a whole host of other things,” he continued. “It’s important for Millinocket and the Katahdin region to have a good economy — it’s good for Bangor and Presque Isle and the entire state.”
Farmer also rejected the characterization of the national monument discussion as one that divided the state along northern and southern lines.
“We’ve got more than 200 businesses — Bangor and north — who have endorsed the national park and national monument idea,” Farmer said. “While there are opponents of the idea in that region, there are also strong and very vocal supporters.”