MEDWAY, Maine — Residents rejected a proposed 150,000-acre North Woods national park and recreation area 252-102 in a nonbinding referendum on Tuesday.
The 354 votes cast represents about 36 percent of the total 987 registered voters eligible — an impressive turnout in a non-Election Day straw poll, town Administrative Assistant Kathy Lee said.
Ted O’Meara, spokesman for the Maine Woods Coalition, which opposes the park, said the vote “isn’t a cause for celebration.”
“The area still really needs economic help. This isn’t break out the champagne time,” O’Meara said Tuesday in a phone interview. “The good news is the people saw through this whole proposal and understood that it really wasn’t in the best long-term interests in the area.”
David Farmer, spokesman for leading park proponent Lucas St. Clair, said the defeat wouldn’t likely change his campaign’s focus or tactics as it moves on to address another nonbinding referendum set for East Millinocket on Monday.
“I think the election showed there is a lot of interest in this issue. A lot of people came out to have their voices heard, but the national park is bigger than any single town,” said Farmer, who was on-hand for the count. “We are going to keep doing our work, which is talking to people and changing hearts and minds. I feel good that a lot of people came out to support the park.”
St. Clair proposes donating family land east of Baxter State Park to create a 75,000-acre national park and a same-sized multi-use recreation area as a gift to the nation. His proposal follows a similar plan his mother, millionaire businesswoman Roxanne Quimby, offered in 2011.
National park opponents have said they fear it would bring federal authority into Maine, cramp the state’s forest products industries with tighter air-quality restrictions, bring unwanted federal authority into northern Maine, generate low-paying jobs and morph far beyond 150,000 acres. They also say the National Park Service has a huge maintenance backlog with its holdings.
Resident Robbie Cox said he voted against the proposal because he didn’t believe the land on which it would go is attractive enough.
“There’s nothing up there but rocks and bushes,” said Cox, a forestry crane operator who said he worked in that area in the 1990s.
He said he also felt that Quimby and St. Clair were like many outside investors who have come into the region over the last decade — more interested in what their initiative gets for them than for the region.
“I think we should hang onto what we have,” Cox said. “We give, we give and we give to these investors, and look at what they did to the mill. They separated the mill from the hydro power so they had to buy electricity [for the mill]. The quick easy fix killed us. They promise you anything, but by the time anything happens, it all gets turned around.”
Proponents said a park would generate 400 to 1,000 jobs, be maintained by $40 million in private endowments, diversify a Katahdin region economy devastated by the closure of two paper mills and coexist with established industries. They say that parks in several western states work well with surrounding foresters and that national parks have never in the service’s history been anything other than positive economic contributors to communities around them.
Resident Jim Russell said he voted for the park because he believed in its economic promise.
“We need new businesses, new people and more investors,” Russell said.
The coalition criticized the park campaign last week for failing to disclose it owns less than 60 percent of the two proposed zones. The campaign said the amount of land was irrelevant.
Resident Vincent Staples said he owned land near the park area and feared losing his control of it to the federal government. Mary Thompson and her daughter, Toni Thompson, voted against the park because they felt the area was already very well-served by Baxter and that a national park would not “make a difference as far as tourists go,” Mary Thompson said.
“I just don’t understand the reason behind putting a national park up there,” she added. “There are a lot of jobs that pay minimum wage. That’s not what this area needs. It needs a living wage.”
It was unclear whether the vote would change the Medway Board of Selectmen’s endorsement of the park. The endorsement came with eight conditions it outlined in a March 2 letter to members of the state’s federal delegation.