EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Hours of testimony and a tour of land around a proposed North Woods national monument on Wednesday left two visiting congressmen satisfied that they understood one of Maine’s thorniest issues.
U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, heard a debate that was conflicting and, within the echoing town office auditorium filled with about 350 observers, often hard to hear. The two members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources visited the Katahdin region at the request of their host, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine.
Bishop, who left after the 1½-hour committee field hearing and 1½ hours at a forum Poliquin held afterward, said his position was unchanged. Maine, he said, will suffer if President Barack Obama uses an executive order to turn about 87,500 acres owned by the Roxanne Quimby family east of Baxter State Park into a national monument managed by the National Park Service.
“There is a terrific diversity of people for it and against it,” Bishop said Wednesday. “It is possible to cut the middle ground, but you can’t do it through the Antiquities Act.
“It can be worked out if it was actually done through legislation,” Bishop added, stopping short of asking Poliquin to submit such a bill because crafting consensus could take years. Instead, he hoped that the White House would listen to testimony culled during the hearing and forum and avoid crafting an executive order.
“Sometimes the White House will listen,” Bishop said.
Gov. Paul LePage offered some of the most personal criticism heard yet of Roxanne Quimby’s proposal to give a gift to the nation. Maine, he said, already preserves hundreds of thousands of acres around the monument area.
“There is no threat to this land. The real threat is an ambitious, wealthy family seeking to create its own legacy,” LePage said during the field hearing that preceded his town hall meeting at Stearns High School of Millinocket.
Monument supporters have spent millions on a campaign to ultimately convince one person — the president, said LePage, who called the monument land a “cut-over” forest lot.
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis has disagreed, saying during his visit to the area last month that the monument lands are important historical and ecological forests that would be much prized in the park system.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, questioned the necessity of a monument in a state-managed land system where 94 percent of state lands are privately owned and 17.7 million acres are forests. Of the 12 million acres of the North Woods, more than 3 million are in conservation easements and more than 300,000 are managed as deer-wintering habitats.
“We do not believe the land will remain an 87,00-acre national monument for long,” Trahan said, predicting that the area will become a park “when politically feasible” and then “grow like a cancer” into a 3.2 million-acre national park long feared in the region.
Westerman, another critic of monuments forged via executive order, predicted that the park service will have a “management plan that will be to just let nature take its course” if it gets control of the monument. This, said Westerman, a former forester with a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University, will lead to conditions that could threaten neighboring landowners whose lands are dedicated to the forest products industry.
Forest fires and natural infestations are more likely, he said during a tour of a logging operation about 2 miles west of the proposed North Woods national monument in Township 5 Range 7.
Katahdin region businessman Matthew Polstein, an adviser to Quimby’s son, leading park proponent Lucas St. Clair, said he doubted that the impact of park service management on forests would be so dire. The park service would address forest fires and their causes, he said after the hearing, while following the natural management practices already followed by Baxter State Park, where forests are allowed to develop naturally, without much management.
Monument critics talk about how the monument would threaten developing forest products industry markets without providing any evidence, he said.
No one testified in favor of the monument during the field hearing. Minority Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee declined to attend and call witnesses. St. Clair and Polstein were invited to speak, but they declined.
“I was not going to subject myself to a biased committee, and I am glad that I did not do it,” Polstein said.
Polstein said that monument opponents continue to float arguments unsupported by facts, such as that a monument would cost northern Maine manufacturing jobs.
“I can find no evidence that supports the idea that the designation of up to 150,000 acres of land as a monument will harm the forest products industry. Furthering people’s fears about the possible impacts are clearly driven by intentionally provided misinformation,” Polstein said.
Many proponents spoke during the forum hosted by Poliquin. Some said that it would be a needed tonic to a region hard-hit by paper products industry losses.
Former Millinocket Town Councilor Anita Mueller said that in the last several years, Millinocket has acquired more than 100 tax-acquired properties, town property taxes are a shade under $30 per $1,000 of valuation ― easily the highest in Maine ― and unemployment runs at least double the state average.
The monument, meanwhile, carries with it $40 million in an endowment and fundraising pledge — “a fantastic opportunity” ― to diversify the region’s economy without supplanting forest products industry jobs, Mueller said.
Since 2001 every sector of the industry, when measured by employment, has declined, most in excess of 20 percent, Polstein said.
“The only change we see is a constant decline in population and services with poverty and taxes on the rise,” said Gail Fanjoy, president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, which endorses the park and monument.
The Poliquin forum was so dominated by pro-park supporters that a call for a show of their hands brought about three-quarters of the audience to its feet.
At LePage’s town hall meeting in Millinocket, meanwhile, the governor bemoaned the direction the state and national economy are taking.
“If we continue down the path of monuments and parks the industrial base will be gone forever,” LePage said. “Many jobs that we built are now offshored.”
Poliquin, who worked through a 12-hour day that included his 4½-hour forum, was glad that monument advocates had a chance to speak despite Democratic lawmakers’ choice not to participate in the hearing.
“It is a very healthy process,” Poliquin said. “This is a way for the folks in the Katahdin region, for their platform to be heard at an official congressional field hearing that I don’t know has ever been done before. What came out of it was that everyone wants more jobs and to protect the jobs they have.”
“There needs to be a clear plan on what this project will look like and where it will be funded,” he added. “We need to do more.”