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Five years ago, then-President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. His action came after years of rancor over land owned by entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby, who was derided by critics of her proposal to create a public preserve on thousands of acres of land she had purchased north of Millinocket.
“Katahdin Woods and Waters is an exceptional example of the rich and storied Maine Woods, enhanced by its location in a larger protected landscape, and thus would be a valuable addition to the Nation’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage conserved and enjoyed in the National Park System,” the Aug. 24, 2016 executive order said.
The order recalled visits to the area by Henry David Thoreau, John James Audubon, Frederic Church, Theodore Roosevelt and Percival Baxter. These men chronicled their visits and shared their awe at the rivers and mountains through their writing and art, and Baxter was inspired to create the nearby park that bears his name. Long before these visits, indigneous people lived in the area.
With the order, about 87,500 miles east of Baxter State Park became a national monument, permanently protecting the land for the people of Maine and the nation. In addition, a foundation established by Quimby pledged to donate $20 million for the monument and to raise another $20 million.
Even after its creation, the monument remained a political punching bag, with former Gov. Paul LePage refusing to put up signs directing visitors to the land and then-President Donald Trump threatening to undercut its protections as part of a review he ordered of dozens of national monuments.
Despite this, visitors have come to the monument, not in droves, but enough to be noticed in the surrounding communities that were left struggling when two large paper mills closed, sending ripples through the local economy. Reservations have increased at local lodges and new businesses have opened.
Last year, the monument attracted 41,000 visitors, who spent $2.7 million in the local economy, according to a National Park Service report.
Many visitors came to the monument for the first time during the COVID pandemic as they sought safe places to recreate and experience the “transformational power of nature,” Lucas St. Clair, who took over advocacy for the monument from his mother Roxanne Quimby, told the BDN editorial board.
St. Clair now serves as a chair member for the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters.
“It is exciting to see that all the bad things that people worried about did not come to fruition … that tens of thousands of people are coming to visit,” he said.
Over the next five years, priorities for the monument include enhancing the visitor experience with new trails, more signs, road improvements and storytelling that will connect the visitor with the Wabanaki experience on the land, as well as its role in the development of our country’s conservation movement.
“Five years ago, it was difficult to find the entrance,” the monument’s first — and, so far, only — superintendent, Tim Hudson said at a celebration of the monument over the weekend. “Now we have new and improved accessible trails, double the number of drive-in tent sites, improved portage trails for paddlers, and of course, road signs — all because of the hard work and generous contributions of park staff, the Friends [of Katahdin Woods and Waters], and a growing and diverse community of volunteers, donors, and partners across the Katahdin Region, Maine, and the country.”
One of the strongest endorsements of the monument came from local elected officials, many of whom opposed its creation.
“However, now that the Monument has been created, all of us are united in our desire to see it continue and succeed,” a group of 19 officials wrote in a May 2017 letter to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as part of the monument review that Trump ordered.
“Although the Monument is less than a year old, already some businesses in the region have experienced an uptick in activity,” they wrote. “Real estate sales have picked up. The communities have begun to heal from the divisiveness that existed during the debate about the Monument. Our communities now have hope again.”
That’s a ringing local endorsement as the monument marks its first five years.