A Maine North Woods national park has been the subject of debate for more than two decades. In that time, the economic landscape of the Katahdin region has shifted dramatically — for the worse — and the ownership of much of the timberland stretching from Millinocket to the Canadian border has changed hands. A long tradition of mill jobs available to area residents right out of high school and open access to mill-owned land has gradually eroded, leaving an uncertain future.
The park plan, too, has changed. The oversized 3 million-acre plan from RESTORE: The North Woods has given way to a more reasonable proposal for a national park and national recreation area, which could be up to 150,000 acres in size. Elliotsville Plantation, the nonprofit foundation started by Roxanne Quimby, will donate the land and a $40 million endowment to help with the management of the park and recreation area. Hunting and snowmobiling would be allowed in the recreation area.
What hasn’t changed in 20 years is the underlying debate over the prospect of a national park in Maine’s North Woods. Park supporters tout the area’s natural beauty and the economic benefits the national park marquee could draw to the region. Opponents worry about federal control in the region and the loss of timber supply and jobs. They say park proponents are overselling the park’s promise.
Skepticism of a national park is understandable in a region with an ever-present legacy of two mills producing tons of paper along with plentiful associated jobs. But with those jobs now gone, the Katahdin region needs new life.
The proposed national park and recreation area will not cure the Katahdin region’s economic woes, but it can be a focal point of its remaking with benefits spreading to Bangor and beyond.
The reality in the area is stark. Employment in the paper and forest products industries has dropped by more than half in the last two decades. In early 2015, about 5,500 people were employed by all of Maine’s paper mills, according to the Maine Department of Labor. That’s about the number of people who worked in the Great Northern Paper Co. mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket alone in the GNP heyday. Mill operators have put the future of more Maine mills in doubt since the Department of Labor’s last count, which is bound to further depress employment.
The proposed national park and recreation area won’t replace these jobs, nor will it stifle the timber harvesting happening in the region right now. The land owned by Elliotsville Plantation is already, and will remain, off-limits to harvesting regardless of the national park proposal’s fate. Plus, national parks coexist with timber harvesting across the country.
What the park offers is the prospect of needed investment that can play a part in ending the region’s economic stagnation.
National parks not only draw visitors, they attract residents. Nationally, areas surrounding national parks saw larger population gains between 1970 and 2010 than the United States as a whole — and certainly much more than rural Maine. These areas also outpaced the U.S. in income growth and employment gains.
Numerous studies show that people want to live in scenic places with ample recreational opportunities. This idea of amenity migration is not new. Arizona successfully marketed itself as a scenic and liveable destination in the 1950s. Florida and Southern California have done the same.
Rural Maine can make a similar bid, but people well beyond Maine must know these amenities exist. Including these lands in a national park will immediately increase their visibility and grow their appeal.
And, as history shows, the valleys and waterways east of Baxter State Park have significant appeal. The landscape inspired early conservationists including Henry David Thoreau and President Theodore Roosevelt. After visiting the area in 1846, and climbing Mount Katahdin, Thoreau called for the creation of “national preserves.”
“Why should not we, who have renounced the king’s authority, have our national preserves … for inspiration and our own true re-creation?” he wrote in “The Maine Woods.”
The landscape isn’t much different today from when Thoreau, Roosevelt and the Penobscot Indians first found themselves in awe because of its beauty and power. The rivers are still untamed, the vistas vast and old trees plentiful.
We, and the majority of Mainers, believe the time has come for a national park and recreation area. That also means it’s time for congressional action to move the proposal forward. Rep. Chellie Pingree, long a park supporter, could introduce the needed legislation in the House; Rep. Bruce Poliquin should support it. In the Senate, a bill sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King would provide a strong endorsement of this worthy proposal. If no legislation is forthcoming, President Barack Obama can designate the area a national monument through an executive order.
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. This would be an ideal time to add a small part of Maine’s famed North Woods to a system with a globally unprecedented legacy of preservation.