If you visit Penobscot Avenue in Millinocket on a gorgeous autumn weekend this year, odds are you’ll see far more people than you may have seen a year ago. Cars are parked on the street and people are bustling about downtown. Most of the people you see are visitors, many of whom are visiting our region for the first time.
They’re here for the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. They’re bringing their appreciation for the great outdoors and leaving their money. The monument has been open for just over a year, and there’s a sense of optimism in our region. Operated by the National Park Service, the monument has put out the welcome mat for our part of the state, and people are taking us up on the promise of a real Maine adventure. Along the way, they’re shopping and eating at local businesses, staying at local hotels and inns and hiring local service providers.
I was never a great cheerleader for the monument. But when it was created in August 2016, I decided the best course of action was to make sure the monument was a success for the people who live here. The monument has created new demands and business opportunities in Millinocket, Medway and other communities near the monument. Properties that have been listed for years are starting to sell. Entrepreneurs are planning new businesses to serve the new visitors to our region. We’re talking increased property values and more jobs.
The monument has had promising early success during its first year. Roughly 3,600 vehicles have entered the monument on its loop road, while another 2,200 have come through other entrances so far this year, according to the park service. That’s nine times more visitors than the monument saw before its designation, when annual traffic on the loop road never topped 600 vehicles. Last winter, the monument saw 10,000 to 15,000 snowmobilers, according to Katahdin Woods and Waters Superintendent Tim Hudson, as well as 500 skiers. Those visitors spent 150 overnight trips in the monument’s two winter huts.
But that promising start is jeopardized by a needless uncertainty that has hung over the monument since President Donald Trump was elected. One of his first acts in office was to order a review of 27 monuments, including Katahdin Woods and Waters, to determine whether they’d stay open at all. I’m certain that until that uncertainty is lifted, our region will see further economic opportunity postponed.
Supporters of the monument breathed a sigh of relief in August when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made clear that Trump wouldn’t close the monument. But there are still huge questions left unanswered, thanks to a suggestion by Zinke that “active timber management” may be in store for the monument in the future. That suggestion came with no detail and, so far, no one has been able to get answers from the administration about what, exactly, it’s planning.
The optimism surrounding the monument is predicated on those 87,500 acres remaining open to the public as a place to appreciate the rustic, ragged beauty of northern Maine. The entrepreneurs planning to open businesses and the families looking to buy property are doing so because of the economic and recreational promise that come with a national monument.
Those entrepreneurs and business owners may think twice about investing in our region if they believe the monument may be turned over to private logging interests.
The people of this region have been hard hit by forces beyond their control. People who worked in the paper mills didn’t ask to be laid off or to have the mill close down. Families who made the difficult decision to uproot their homes and move south did not ask for job opportunities to disappear. They deserve to know what the future holds for their communities.
We all remember the controversy surrounding the process of making this land a monument. But we now know that the monument is not going anywhere. So the time for uncertainty is over. It’s time to build roads and campsites and put up signs. By now we shouldn’t be worrying about how the U.S. government will operate the monument, we should be planning how to use this huge asset in our region to spur economic growth for communities that desperately need it.
Our community needs stability and support, jobs and growth. It’s time for Trump and Zinke to shoot straight with the Maine people. We deserve to know what their plans are for this public land, and how those plans will benefit future generations of Mainers.
Jim Dill represents District 5 in the Maine Senate.