Gov. Paul LePage and Lucas St. Clair painted starkly differing portraits of Maine’s national monument as they took one of the north woods’ most divisive issues before its most influential audience yet — Congress — on Tuesday.
In testimony to a House Committee on Natural Resources subcommittee, St. Clair said the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument already was having a positive impact on northern Maine despite being only eight months old. LePage said he didn’t expect that the monument would ever benefit northern Maine.
“Not in this area, not in my lifetime,” LePage said Tuesday, predicting that “very few [visitors] will be in the mosquito area” of the monument this summer, instead preferring to go to Maine’s coast.
St. Clair’s family, including Burt’s Bees entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby, donated to the federal government 87,563 acres of family-owned land east of Baxter State Park. President Barack Obama created the monument from those lands in August 2016.
The Federal Lands Subcommittee examined the monument designation process during 2½ hours of testimony at the nation’s capital on Tuesday as part of what it called an examination of executive branch overreach of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The act allows presidents to designate monuments unilaterally.
St. Clair said the donated land “is a beautiful and amazing place,” and “culturally and historically significant.” He said he worked with four focus groups and conducted 80 independent interviews with Penobscot County stakeholders before the monument designations. Dozens of meetings were held, St. Clair said.
He called the designation and public outreach “a model of how the Antiquities Act should work” and said that his family spent $8 million to $10 million in infrastructure improvements to the monument lands over last five years.
A monument opponent, LePage said Obama ignored state Legislature votes against the monument and local referendums in East Millinocket and Medway and at a town meeting in Patten where residents overwhelmingly were against the monument. U.S. Rep Bruce Poliquin and U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins also expressed “strong reservations” about a potential designation. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who represents southern Maine, said she supports the monument.
“I think that they [Obama administration officials] ignored the will of the governed,” LePage told the subcommittee, adding that the road network around the monument cannot handle tourist and logging-truck traffic.
Collins, King and Pingree later urged LePage to drop his fight against the monument.
LePage said he also saw tissue manufacturing as a growing industry replacing traditional papermaking in Maine. LePage hinted that a potential investor in one of two former Katahdin region mill sites would “have to look to other areas” because Baxter State and the monument “were taking a lot of land off the rolls.” He offered no details.
St. Clair said the monument proposal was popular in northern Maine and referred to a survey of 500 respondents across the 2nd Congressional District in 2015, which his family foundation funded, that showed that 67 percent favored a proposed national park and recreation area.
St. Clair referred to overwhelming support expressed at a University of Maine meeting held by National Park Service officials and at a meeting held by U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, in East Millinocket.
LePage said that many supporters at the UMaine-Orono meeting were bused to the meeting while opponents had to use their own transportation.
“That was really telling to me, that you have to bus people in from southern Maine,” LePage said.
LePage said it would have been better if monument proponents worked with Baxter State officials on the monument.
Yet Baxter officials have never expressed interest publicly in acquiring more land. Baxter officials have said they try to limit their visitor populations to about 75,000 people annually in order to keep park maintenance manageable. Baxter officials have said there is conflict between their preservationist stance and the National Park Service philosophy of encouraging as many visitors as possible.