MILLINOCKET, Maine — Republican congressional and state leaders will visit the Katahdin region on Wednesday to immerse themselves in Roxanne Quimby’s controversial North Woods national monument proposal and the area’s economic environment.
Gov. Paul LePage will hold a town hall-style meeting about the direction of Maine’s economy at Stearns High School in Millinocket on Wednesday that will overlap a forum on the monument proposal hosted by U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, at the East Millinocket town office, officials said Tuesday.
The day’s official activities begin with the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources holding a field hearing on the monument proposal at 2 p.m. at the East Millinocket town office. Prior to that, two of the Republican committee members holding the hearing, U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop of Utah and Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, will tour the land near the proposed 87,500-acre monument area east of Baxter State Park, officials said.
Poliquin’s forum at East Millinocket’s town office will start at 3:30 p.m. and ends at 7:30 p.m., according to schedules provided by LePage and Poliquin. LePage’s town hall at Stearns High is set to begin at 5:30 p.m. LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said that the governor’s town hall meetings are typically held at that time and the overlap was not meant as a slight to members of Congress.
“He’s in the area so it is an opportunity to meet with folks,” she said Tuesday.
Poliquin spokesman Brendan Conley said that Poliquin “has insisted that the forum run well past 5 p.m. to ensure that local constituents in the region can participate if they are unavailable during the workday.”
The town office has 439 seats — 390 on the first floor and 49 in the second-story balcony, town officials said.
Poliquin’s forum was announced last week. LePage’s was announced Tuesday. A statement Bennett released earlier Tuesday said that “the town hall meeting will focus on the governor’s vision for Maine, including further reducing the income tax; continuing to reform welfare; cutting energy costs; and making the state more business friendly to create good jobs for Mainers.”
LePage is due to be the first witness heard by the committee when its hearing starts, officials have said. The committee’s chairman, Bishop, will lead the hearing. LePage has said that the monument would disrupt the state forest products economy by increasing federal authority in northern Maine.
Statements made at Poliquin’s forum will be added to the official Congressional Record. More than 60 individuals on both sides of the issue and mostly from the Katahdin region have signed up, Conley said.
Earlier in the day, officials will participate in a tour of the Katahdin region’s working forest, the local logging operations and the logging roads, all of which would be affected by a proposed national monument, Conley said.
The family of entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby seeks to donate the 87,500 acre parcel to the National Park Service this year. Quimby’s son, leading park proponent Lucas St. Clair, said the committee hasn’t asked to tour the land, but it is open to the public and they are welcome to visit it.
“It’s a gorgeous place,” St. Clair said.
According to a House committee hearing memorandum released on Friday night, St. Clair was invited to participate in the hearing, but committee majority spokeswoman Elise Daniel said he declined. St. Clair and one of his local advisers, New England Outdoors Center owner Matthew Polstein, were asked to be witnesses in the hearing to offset the committee’s minority Democrats’ refusal to attend or name witnesses.
St. Clair and Polstein said they didn’t see any good reason to participate in the congressional hearing. Bishop and Poliquin have made it clear through bills they have introduced and statements they have made that they oppose the monument, St. Clair said.
“It seems that there is already clear opposition from Bishop and Poliquin on this,” St. Clair said. “It sounds like their minds are made up.”
St. Clair and Polstein said they were invited to participate in the hearing on Friday. That was only after “bad press reports” came out criticizing the hearing lineup as one-sided, Polstein said.
“They clearly have no interest in gathering facts. The Katahdin region needs real economic opportunities, not meaningless, expensive field hearings by congressmen who parachute in from out-of-state with their own political agenda. I will attend to listen but did not respond to the invitation and do not plan to comment in a controlled three-ring circus,” Polstein said in an email on Tuesday.
Daniel said that Democratic minority members of the committee made the lineup unbalanced by refusing to participate. Under House hearing rules, committee minority and majority members typically pick witnesses according to their political beliefs. With no proponents on the committee coming to Maine, no proponents would typically be called to testify, she said.
St. Clair spokesman David Farmer said he believed that the Democrats’ reticence “speaks to the fact that the Democrats recognize that this is not about a political policy debate.”
“For every field hearing the committee has held during this Congress, the minority has sent a member and provided witnesses. The fact they chose to not attend or send witnesses to this hearing is rare and unfortunate,” Daniel said. “They have shied away from engaging in a substantive discussion over this issue.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, in a statement released Tuesday, urged President Obama to use his executive authority to designate the Quimby land a federal monument. She believes the monument would vastly bolster the Katahdin region economy and the rest of the state, calling Quimby’s offer of a $20 million endowment and $20 million in fundraising for the operation of the monument “unprecedented and generous.”
“And I’ve heard directly and indirectly from business owners throughout my district who benefit from the visitors who travel to Acadia National Park. Hotels and motels, outdoor recreation equipment dealers, restaurants and other businesses around the state benefit from the millions of visitors headed for Acadia,” Pingree said. “I have no doubt the same would be true if a national monument were established in northern Maine.”