Recent hearings on the possibility of a North Woods national monument have underscored that the history of the creation of our national parks has largely been one of local opposition — because people are naturally resistant to change. But after creation of these parks, widespread support has arisen in every instance in recognition of the economic, environmental and recreational value of national parks.
In Maine, we add to this picture the land acquisition of future parks by Maine visionaries like Percival Baxter and George Dorr. Baxter in particular faced huge opposition to his idea for Baxter State Park, and there was at least one vote in the Legislature that declined to accept his gift of what is now Baxter State Park — until he provided an endowment to support the park, just as the St. Clair family has offered a $40 million endowment for the North Woods national monument.
Lucas St. Clair and his family want to continue this Maine tradition of home-grown land acquisition and donation by providing not only the land for the park (which, by the way, is only 35 percent of the area of Baxter State Park), but also donating 75,000 acres for a recreation area as a good-faith offering to those who are always opposed to change. Plus, the $40 million endowment for its maintenance. This is a proposal entirely in the Maine tradition of Baxter and Dorr. Our congressional delegation should get behind this idea while the proposal is on the table — and while the National Park Service is celebrating its centennial.
The St. Clair family and local leaders, including the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, are correct that the greatest economic impact — for a region with little apparent economic future — will be from a national monument. And why not? The land is already set aside in conservation ownership and sits idle, without any ongoing economic contributions. The local economy needs the marketing advantage of the words “national monument” to bring tourism dollars and jobs to the region.
Even some of Maine’s influential forest products industry spokespeople have spoken in favor of the national monument, including in letters to this newspaper. As one said in June, a national monument can diversify the economy so that these forests can again provide jobs forever, rather than hoping that the forest economy of the 19th century will miraculously return. There is no pulp or papermaking occurring anywhere in the Penobscot River watershed today. It’s time to move on.
East Millinocket’s own website includes a tagline in large font that says, “The Town That Paper Made.” Whoops! Rather than a backward-looking, past-tense tagline about their economic decline, how about a new, forward-looking tagline, something like “Gateway to the North Woods National Monument”? And MapQuest.com calls Millinocket “ a former mill town.” Let’s get this national monument idea done while the word “former” refers only to the mills, not to the town.
Steve Kahl lives in Waterville. He has researched and taught about the environment and economy of the North Woods for 35 years at the University of Maine and University of New Hampshire. He is currently a science faculty member at Thomas College.