After reading columns in favor of the proposed park, many by people who have probably never visited the area, I felt compelled to share my thoughts. As a natural resource manager for almost 40 years, I have worked and recreated in and around the East Branch of the Penobscot River.
There is nothing terribly unique about the area. Proponents cite five rare plant species, high-value wetlands, abundant wildlife and flood plains. But it pales in comparison to the rare plants in Baxter State Park. Practically every town in Maine has high- and moderate-value wetlands; a large beaver flowage can qualify. The East Branch does have good hardwood flood plains but equally intact examples exist downriver and on Penobscot tributaries Mattawamkeag, Passadumkeag and Piscataquis rivers.
The East Branch is a good canoeing river but one that does not attract many canoeists due to several portages. Would the National Park Service provide shuttle services or pave the portages to facilitate greater public use? There goes wilderness.
One proponent describes the river as “free flowing.” It is not. Flow is controlled by Telos Dam and Matagamon Lake Dam. Matagamon is no longer used commercially, and ownership has reverted to landowners with shoreline property. The dam now maintains flows so the river can be run most of the summer. Without the dam, canoeing would be limited to a short period in the spring. Tourists don’t come to Maine in May and June because of our legendary blackflies.
Several environmental groups support the park in order to protect the natural values. On the other hand, the park needs to attract tens of thousands of people if it is to provide the promised economic boost to the region. With more people comes the need for paved roads and buildings. How is increasing the human footprint more protective of the environment than its use as a working forest? A conservation easement could prohibit paved roads, rest area buildings, campgrounds and solar panels.
One OpEd asserted that the National Park Service needs a representative of “Maine’s rich northern forest heritage” for preservation and scientific study. Why is it necessary? Is this like collecting stamps?
Just to the west of the proposed park is 200,000-acre Baxter State Park with forest ecosystems, most of which have not been touched by ax or saw for a century or more. Further west is the 46,270-acre Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area owned by The Nature Conservancy with acres of old growth forest that protects remote trout ponds and has hiking and snowmobile trails. Ecosystem studies are part of The Nature Conservancy’s program.
Further west, Appalachian Mountain Club has its 100,000-acre Maine Woods Initiative forest between Brownville and Greenville. Scientific reference areas and an extensive system of hiking, biking and skiing trails are complemented by campsites, lodges and sporting camps. Near Greenville, The Nature Conservancy, Appalachian Mountain Club, Plum Creek and the Forest Society collaborated on the 400,000-acre Moosehead Forest Conservation Easement.
All of these projects have miles of hiking trails as well as carefully located snowmobile trails, many with great views of Katahdin. Hundreds of thousands of northern Maine acres are protected from development by conservation easements. The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands manages over 700,000 acres of land for recreation, forest protection and timber harvesting. In Ki-Jo Mary Forest and North Maine Woods, landowners manage campsites and welcome recreationists to over 3.5 million acres of private timberland. It seems Elliotsville Plantation is a Johnny-come-lately to the recreation and forest protection scene in Maine.
If resources that attract people are there, people will come naturally and a park would serve the purpose of managing use and protecting the resource. This proposal does not fit the model. Labelling an area as a national park will attract visitors. Unfortunately, once they visit, they will leave saying, “This is it? No use coming back.” There goes the economic model.
Private groups, state agencies and private forest landowners already provide recreational opportunities while also protecting the forest and supporting the forest products industry. Many of the trails and campsites in northern Maine are underutilized. The tourism economy has room to expand with current resources. The proposed park area is not worthy of national park status and adds little to forest protection or economic development in the Katahdin region.
Barry Burgason is a certified wildlife biologist for Huber Resources Corp., which manages timberland north and south of the proposed park. He is a former wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, who covered the region that contains the proposed park.