After visiting six states last week to celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th birthday, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell wrapped up her whirlwind week of travel in Maine, where she helped celebrate the formation of the park service’s latest unit, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Jewell paddled the East Branch of the Penobscot River with Lucas St. Clair, president of Elliotsville Plantation Inc. and son of Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby, who donated more than 87,000 acres to the federal government in order to form the monument.

After an often rancorous battle about various park proposals over the past two decades, Jewell said she understood the underlying concerns that prompted many to oppose the park. But she said she’s looking forward to Mainers working together to make the monument the best it can be.

“Change is hard for us as human beings. All of us,” Jewell said. “It’s hard to let go of the ‘from’ if you don’t know what the ‘to’ is.”

Jewell is familiar with Maine’s particular ‘from.’ She grew up in Washington state, where timber harvesting was a key industry. And she said she sees similarities in Maine, where many in the area near the monument have watched their economy crumble.

That, she said, is the ‘from.’

She said it’s incumbent on the National Park Service to respond to the needs of those communities, rather than simply roll into town and tell longtime Mainers what the new reality will look like.

“Everybody would like to have an opportunity for their children that mirrors some of the things that were special to them about their childhood,” Jewell said. “That’s where the ‘to’ is. And I think that it’s just natural that we work with communities to help create that ‘to.’ And I mean create it collectively.”

Beginning Sept. 12, the National Park Service will begin holding listening sessions and expects to visit five towns to stage those events. The dates have not yet been set, but park representatives will be on hand to hear suggestions and concerns of the public during the meetings.

“[I hope people] think about what would they like,” she said. “What’s so important to preserve? What would they like to see changed? How can they see themselves in this picture? That’s a big part of the process that’s going to happen over the next few years, as we work with the community to figure out what that ‘to’ is going to look like.”

After spending some time in the new national monument, she’s confident that Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument will emerge as a four-season recreational destination.

“Lucas was describing to me in the boat what it’s like here in the winter, what it’s like to ski along the river,” Jewell said. “Or to enjoy the fall colors, or to come here when the leaves are gone and you can see so much more. Or to enjoy the burst of green in the spring.”

Over the past four years or so, St. Clair has heard many say that the land his mother wanted to donate to the federal government didn’t meet the standard of other units in the national park system. He never believed them and kept plugging away at changing those opinions, one person at a time.

“I always thought this was a good idea, and eventually [we’d] get there,” St. Clair said.

And although green forests and wild rivers might seem common to Mainers, those features are far from common for people who visit from many other places. St. Clair said he has become friends with writer and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams, and he joined her on an airplane ride over the monument lands before it was transferred to the federal government.

Her comments resonated with him.

“She said, ‘I have never seen so many shades of green in my life,’” St. Clair said.

After devoting much of his time over the past four years to the effort to achieve federal status for the land, St. Clair said he planned to unwind a little with a trip to Acadia National Park.

“[Our family is] going to go stay at my mom’s place on the coast, and just have some down time,” he said.

Down time? Maybe. But will he actually shut off his cellphone?

“No. I can’t,” he said with a chuckle. “My wife and I joke all the time. She says, ‘You can’t stop working. I know you can’t stop working.’”

And he knows there’s plenty of work left to do.

After the trip, Jewell also seemed ready to unwind a bit. Over the previous seven days she’d been to Arkansas, New York, California and Montana to celebrate the park service’s birthday.

But she said she was glad to have capped off the travel binge with a stop at the newest national monument in the country.

“It’s been an uplifting and incredible week because we’re looking to the future of the National Park Service,” she said. “To have Katahdin Woods and Waters protected as a national monument this week, forever to be here for future generations, particularly of young people, that’s just the icing on top of the birthday cake for our 100th anniversary.”

John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...