Maine is far from the first state to face the creation of a national monument by President Barack Obama’s decree. Obama has written 22 monuments into existence in communities around the country, more than any other president.
As he weighs a proposal to turn 87,500 acres east of Baxter State Park into a national monument, Mainers can draw several lessons from the experiences of other states.
A proclamation is just the beginning
Local officials, congressional representatives, environmentalists and landowners will all seek to have a say in a monument’s future. But the administrators appointed by the National Park Service or other agencies will have the biggest influence, said Willard Dunham, president of the historical society of Seward, Alaska.
Seward is the city closest to Kenai Fjords of Alaska, which President Jimmy Carter controversially designated as a 570,000-acre national monument in 1978. Congress named it a national park two years later.
Like the Katahdin region, Seward has a small population — 2,693 according to the last census — and survived economically for decades by extracting natural resources from the landscape. The locals also initially opposed the creation of a national monument.
An early administrator of the Alaskan park alienated local residents. He closed vast swaths of the coastline along the fjords, making it difficult for many subsistence hunters to survive, Dunham said.
“It took quite awhile for the park service to become a mutual working partner in the community,” said Dunham, an early monument opponent who, like many Seward residents, eventually became a fan. “A successful transition will depend on the person who is in charge of making it work. If they do it right, then you will have a great, smooth transition of ownership that is very good. If you have a stickler for the rules and someone who comes in and says how it is going to be, that won’t be as good.”
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis has promised that monument administrators would be in Maine the day after a designation.
That’s how it typically works, said University of Montana professor Ted Catton. The former National Park Service historian has written three books and numerous articles examining the park service and, among others, the Alaska, Great Smoky Mountains, Lassen Volcanic, Mount Rainier and Voyageurs national parks and George Washington Carver National Monument.
“Opportunities for public involvement don’t end with the proclamation. It is more like a beginning point,” Catton said.
It can take as long as 10 years for a monument management plan to develop once a proclamation is issued.
Anti-monument lawsuits fail
Governors or state legislatures who challenge executive orders creating monuments have historically failed. Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington state all filed lawsuits challenging presidential authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create monuments in their states.
“What you see in three of these instances [Alaska, Arizona and Utah] is that in the near term, you get a lot of resistance from a lot of the local people who have been used to making extractive uses of those resources,” Catton said. “They don’t want to see that change.”
All the lawsuits failed, Catton said. Federal courts have always upheld the constitutionality of the Antiquities Act.
Of course, that could change.
State officials in Utah are threatening to launch a $14 million lawsuit against the federal government should Obama create a monument in the southeastern portion of that state. The president is being lobbied to federalize Bears Ears, a 1.9-million-acre region near Canyonlands National Park, much the way that Burt’s Bees entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby wants her family’s land turned into a monument.
Congress has abolished 11 national monuments, usually, according to the park service, because “the resources for which the monument was established originally became diminished or were found to be of less than national significance.” The federal government transferred the areas to state or local governments or incorporated them into federal land units.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who opposes the monument, hasn’t indicated whether he’d pursue a lawsuit opposing the North Woods effort. His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said it was too soon to tell.
Traditional industries could face more restrictions
A North Woods national monument might bring environmentalists into management of the region as never before, said Leland Pollock, chairman of the Garfield County Commission in Utah, home to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Within a few years of President Bill Clinton’s creation of the 1.7-million-acre monument in 1996, an environmental group initiated a series of lawsuits claiming that wood sales from the adjacent Dixie National Forest harmed the environment, said Pollock. A 65-worker mill that relied on that wood closed in 2002, according to Shannon Steed, whose family owned the mill.
“There are individual cases [out west] where new restrictions are imposed because of the monument’s presence. Ranchers will tell you that they are being held to a higher standard because the monument is there,” said Phil Taylor, a reporter for Environment & Energy Publishing, an online newsletter that covers national environmental and energy policy.
The controversy over Grand Staircase-Escalante continues in Utah to this day. The seething dispute is a large part of the distrust of the federal government exhibited by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who visited Maine earlier this year at the invitation of U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, who opposes the North Woods monument.
Conservatives blame the designation for denying Utah a vast coal-extraction industry, kicking ranchers off ranges, draining the county of population and devastating the local economies. To environmentalists, Grand Escalante shows how monuments transform industrial economies to service-based economies, preserve the environment and reflect the wisdom of the Antiquities Act.
Pollock doubts that the monument designation helped his county. In 2015, almost 20 years after Clinton’s designation, his commission declared an economic state of emergency, blaming Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service policies for depressing the economy and leading to a precipitous drop in school population.
In his opinion, the designation “has been a nightmare,” he said.
Local opposition can give way to support
Clinton designated two national monuments in Arizona in the late 1990s, restricting those areas from mining and many other industrial uses. Arizona Gov. Jane Hull pushed him to rescind his executive order.
But when President George W. Bush’s administration considered repealing Clinton’s executive order, Hull objected. The Grand Canyon-Parashant monument had become popular enough with residents of Phoenix that Hull dropped her opposition, Catton said.
“The real support for a monument designation comes from the urban areas around it,” he said.
After Carter designated Kenai Fjords, Seward residents burned him in effigy. Local governments passed a series of resolves opposing Carter’s mandate, Catton said. Yet the citizens of Seward underwent a dramatic change of heart after seeing their economy improve and rescinded their resolves.
“As tourism grows up in connection to new national monuments, it’s not long, five or 10 years, before communities begin appreciating their being there,” Catton said.
Tourism-based industries that spring up around monuments are usually the cause of the enthusiasm, said Lee Poleske, a retired history teacher and Seward historical society member. In Alaska, local and international cruise lines that visit the fjords are among the biggest economic contributors.
“We weren’t too enthused to start with, but it didn’t take us long to realize that it was a great opportunity for our area. We became staunch backers of it,” Dunham said.
“Now there are a lot of people here who couldn’t imagine the town being any other way,” Poleske said.