PATTEN, Maine — Nathan Richardson is seeing a new kind of customer.
They’re not really there to buy tools. They don’t have local accents. Sometimes they come right up to Richardson or other workers at Richardson’s Hardware with lots of questions about local landmarks or places to stay. Other times they speak only when spoken to, but either way, they say that they are visiting this small northern Penobscot County town because they want to see the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
Richardson estimates that he sees 10 to 15 of them a week, a paltry number compared with the 700 people per week who typically visit his store, but the newcomers “make a huge difference.
“The town is busier. They come and look around. Some purchase things but their just being in the area is good for it. It makes the town a more bustling place,” he said.
The monument has attracted 605 vehicles since President Barack Obama created it in mid-August, according to a vehicle counter installed on Katahdin Loop Road. That’s an average of about 121 vehicles a week.
That number, park supporters say, is a lot healthier than the average of 44 vehicles per week on the main road to the monument land during the roughly three months before. The traffic counter was installed May 31.
The loop road circles through the largest of three monument parcels seen on the latest park service map before connecting to Swift Brook Road and Route 11 in Stacyville.
“Not that those are huge numbers, but it’s a good start,” Tim Hudson, the park service facilities and parks manager overseeing the monument, said. “I am hearing anecdotally that things have picked up [regionally] but nobody’s calling us a panacea. We weren’t expected to be.”
Obama issued the executive order creating the monument Aug. 24. The counts show a peak a week before the designation and by the end of August, with 129 vehicles on the week of Aug. 17 and 183 as of 12 days later, on Aug. 29.
One hundred and sixty-two, 145, 104 and 102 vehicles were counted between Sept. 5 and Sept. 26, according to the counter.
Risky to assume
It’s difficult to tell what the vehicle counts mean in terms of the impact of visitors. The 605 vehicles, for example, could account for 1,210 or 1,815 people, depending on whether the vehicles each carried two or three people. Any assumptions are risky, Hudson said.
“I know for a fact there was one day where we got three 18-seat vans,” Hudson said wryly.
Still, the early numbers drew scorn from opponents but hopes from supporters that the controversial monument is becoming a moneymaker for the Katahdin region.
The president’s decree was the culmination of an environmentalist quest that began in 1994, when RESTORE: The North Woods advocated the creation of a 3.2 million-acre national park in Maine. Entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby revitalized that movement with an announcement in 2011 that she was seeking a national park designation for 87,563 acres that she owned east of Baxter State Park. She made her first purchase of land in the area in 2001.
Opponents feared an intrusive federal authority that would destroy struggling but still very profitable forest products industry enterprises that have forged a way of life in the region for generations. Supporters said the monument would be a victory for the environment and bolster a northern Maine devastated by paper mill closures and a population exodus.
Only a handful of visitors
The monument would be a hit, supporters said, if it drew just 10 percent of the approximately 2 million recreational visits Acadia National Park typically gets a year as one of the most-visited national parks in the United States. That 200,000 visitors, they have said, would create 450 to 1,000 jobs.
John Raymond of Millinocket, a Katahdin region recreation and tourism enthusiast who opposes the monument, said the early numbers show nothing close to 200,000 visitors possible this year. Nor will it get anything close to that number in the next several years, Raymond suspected.
“So far it’s drawing about 3,000 cars a year,” Raymond said.
Worse, the numbers show a decline over the last few weeks despite the monument’s receiving voluminous publicity, Raymond said.
“Where are they going to get 200,000 visitors? Don’t get me wrong. It’s here to stay. We’re not going to get rid of it. There have been national monuments that have been turned back but it would take a miracle for that to happen here,” Raymond said.
The former town councilor is no enemy of tourism. He’s hoping to create an all-terrain-vehicle park using some of the 3,500-acre Dolby landfill land to help draw some of the more than $250 million in revenue that state officials estimate is generated annually by ATV sales and use in Maine.
But he has issues with the federal presence, which recently cut access to an ATV trail near Patten, entangling the area economy in constricting regulations. He and other recreation enthusiasts fear the federal presence eventually hampering lucrative regional activities, such as hunting and snowmobiling.
More recently, the director of Baxter State Park, which has vastly more environmentally-preservationist policies than most national parks, penned a public letter expressing his apprehension that visitors to the monument will cross the shared boundary with the park and imperil areas left largely untouched since Theodore Roosevelt visited them in 1879.
Hearing a ‘little bit about the monument’
A Millinocket art gallery co-owner and former councilor, Anita Mueller, says she has seen a slight uptick in post-monument business.
“The folks that we are seeing say they are there mainly because they heard a little bit about the monument,” Mueller, a monument supporter, said. “Traffic in the gallery is much more consistent than it was prior to the monument announcement. I think there is a lot more energy around the region since the monument.”
Gail Fanjoy, president of the largest group of local monument supporters, the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, said she has “seen more out of state cars on Main Street, diners in restaurants, and incredible excitement from visitors to the national monument headquarters. I’m pleasantly surprised by the volume of visitors and their presence in our local businesses.”
A monument supporter, Patten Town Council Chairman Richard Schmidt III, says he also sees more people around town. He took hope in the increase in the number of vehicles counted after the designation declaration.
“I think that that’s a significant increase and that’s kind of what we expected to see. We will see a lull between now and the spring,” Schmidt said. “I think this is a sign of things to come. Once we are able to bring this management plan to the forefront and begin expanding on the infrastructure we have, it will just bring more and more people in.”
The park service welcomes visitors to the upper Katahdin region at the Lumbermen’s Museum on Shin Pond Road in Patten and to the lower Katahdin region at a small storefront on Penobscot Avenue in Millinocket.
Park service officials also have taken the first steps toward a management plan with four listening sessions in northern Maine in September. The next steps, Hudson said, include collating all the data gathered at the sessions into a single report over the next month.
Park service officials will share the report with the public through another series of meetings this winter. The work at those meetings will go into a “foundation document” — another report from which park service officials and participants will continue shaping a management plan.
The foundation document will likely be prepared next spring, for refinement through more meetings and local and federal review by park officials over the next 2½ years, Hudson said.
“Three years to develop a management plan seems like a long time but for this kind of planning it’s actually pretty short,” Hudson said. “The key is to get enough information and not have it drag along.”
Raymond said he suspects that with little infrastructure buildout likely at the monument over the next year or two, visitors expecting anything like Acadia or other national parks will get turned off by the black flies and rough-hewn nature of the monument lands.
Tourists also won’t likely be venturing to the monument lands in the often-bitter winter of Maine, said Raymond, who expected that the monument’s most traffic will come between late spring and fall.
“It’s here to stay,” Raymond said of the monument. “I wish them the best of luck. They pushed this on us, we have been told a bunch of lies the last 10 to 15 years, so how are we expected to see any different. This is going to produce 400 to 1,000 jobs? Good luck with that.”
Schmidt expects visitors numbers to continue to climb, and visitors to be more understanding.
“I think that most reasonable people understand that there’s a lot of work to be done as far as getting infrastructure in place,” Schmidt said. “If they keep coming back, they will only see their experience getting better.”