MILLINOCKET, Maine — Profound anti-federal government sentiments and fears of imperiling paper mill revitalization efforts were among reasons town leaders cited Thursday for opposing environmentalist Roxanne Quimby’s proposal to create a national park.
Against the wishes of a downtown business group and the region’s Chamber of Commerce, the Town Council voted 6-0 to oppose plans to create a national park and a study of that park. Councilor Bryant Davis — no relation to Chairman John Davis — was absent.
The vote and two hours of discussion preceding it illustrated how Quimby’s proposal has split the council and town businesspeople who support the study. Several councilors were offended that a half-dozen study proponents left the meeting just before the council vote and said that some proponents had insulted them in the weeks before the vote.
“I thought it was terribly disrespectful,” Councilor Michael Madore said of the walkout. “Common courtesy and respect have to go both ways. I think we listened very carefully to their positions.”
Councilors were miffed that the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce and Millinocket Downtown Revitalization Committee publicly announced their support of a study before Thursday’s meeting, John Davis said.
“I would think that they could have at least come down and told us how they felt, face to face,” Davis said Thursday. “I am really disappointed with that. They say we’re living in the past. That’s crazy. They don’t see the work we are doing down here [to develop the town’s economy] because most of it is confidential. And we have never discouraged tourism around here.”
Quimby hopes to make a gift in 2016 of 70,000 acres she owns next to Baxter State Park to the federal government for a park and has promised to continue to work toward that goal, which she termed a part of her legacy, even if it goes beyond that year.
The Legislature passed a resolve last month opposing Quimby’s initiative, through which she hopes to create a Maine Woods National Park. The park would be nearly twice the size of Acadia National Park. Sportsmen would get another 30,000 acres north of Dover-Foxcroft to be managed like a state park, with hunting and snowmobiling allowed.
Another 10 million acres of forestland nearby would be unaffected.
Park proponents said that Quimby’s proposal would be an economic lifeline. It would draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to a Katahdin region with an unemployment rate, 21.8 percent last month, nearly triple the state average, shuttered paper mills, a dying forest products industry and no other significant investors apparently willing to put money into the region, they said.
And, given Quimby’s promise to raise $20 million publicly to add to a $20 million endowment for park maintenance, the park would be virtually self-supporting.
“We don’t see the gathering of information as a threat to our mills, industry or way of life,” Alice Morgan, president of the Millinocket Downtown Revitalization Committee and owner of a downtown retail shop, said of the feasibility study. “We see it as essential to making rational decisions. We should be joining together, not providing news organizations [with stories] and threatening organizations who don’t support your position.”
“Tourists have always come here,” she added. “There is no conflict between tourism and the wood products industry.”
Many of the park proponents were revitalization committee and Chamber members who said they collectively employed more than 400 townspeople.
“We as a business community are suffering. You have to know that,” town restaurateur and former Councilor Matthew Polstein said. “This week, next week, Central Street Market is closing and it is closing because our local traffic and destination traffic is dwindling.”
“I don’t know if it is a fact but there are five or six businesses open whose ability to survive beyond this summer is in question,” Polstein added. “Virtually your entire business community is saying we have to look at this. We are in dire straits.”
With the future of the region’s mills “seriously in question,” and a noted philanthropist such as Quimby interested enough in the region to donate 70,000 acres to it, “It seems to me unconscionable not to explore feasibility of a national park,” Polstein said.
Yet Quimby’s plan would imperil state leaders’ efforts to find buyers for the East Millinocket and Millinocket paper mills, Councilor John Raymond said. Raymond said that the state’s primary forest products industry adviser, Rosaire Pelletier, told him that Quimby’s proposal was not doing the mill sales efforts any good.
“’If you are going to invest $100 million in this area, you want to get fiber,’” Raymond quoted Pelletier as saying, “and if you can’t get fiber then” there’s little point in the investment.
Several councilors and Cheryl Russell, president of the Lincoln Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said that the issue wasn’t Quimby, but a national park gouging 70,000 acres from the region’s working forests and bringing with it a federal government ignorant of local residents.
“It is the issue of federal zoning in our woods,” Russell said. “The federal system is [the state Land Use Regulation Commission] on steroids. It is important to respect business owners for wanting hope and development, but a federal park is not the way to go. There were no promises of high-paying jobs [with a park] unless you work for the park service.”
Councilors David Cyr and Jimmy Busque said they did not trust the federal government or Quimby’s promises to limit the park to 70,000 acres. They predicted the park eventually would grow to the 3.2 million-acre size proposed by a group Quimby belonged to years ago.
They cited two national parks where federal officials were responsible, they said, for forcibly evicting more than 3,000 people from their homes in the 1920s and 1930s.
“The federal government as far as I can see has ignored the will of the people,” Cyr said.
Busque compared promises Quimby has made to limit the park’s size to Nazi Germany’s false promises before its annexation of Czechoslovakia and invasion of Poland in 1939.
“This is not about acres. This is about the federal takeover of the northern woods,” Busque said.