May 27, 2020

Maine park activists’ dream

The mere talk of a Maine Woods National Park raises the ire of many northern Mainers. Several towns and a county have even passed resolutions opposing the idea, which has hung like a specter over the state’s continuing debates about land preservation and timber harvesting.

They may not need to get so exercised, however, because such a park is nothing more than a gleam in the eyes of environmentalists, and it is likely to stay that way for a long time, according to federal officials.

Creation of a new national park would take two acts of Congress, landowners willing to sell their land to the federal government and, most importantly, support from local residents.

All of those things are missing, so the National Park Service is not eager to step into the fray, said Edie Shean-Hammond, a spokesperson for the agency’s northeastern region.

“To even suggest that a national park could be created … without the full support of the local community is totally unrealistic,” she said. “It is not going to happen.”

She said congressional delegations in other states are advocating for national parks that won’t go forward for lack of money or other reasons. So the chances of a park that no one in power supports are slim.

With a $4 billion backlog of unfunded improvements and maintenance projects at existing parks, the service has better things to do than take on a controversial 3.2 million-acre park in Maine, especially in an area where nearly 1.5 million acres are slated to be protected from development by conservation easements.

“Why would we opt to get involved in something like this?” Shean-Hammond asked.

Remember Saddleback? she asked. How much grief the park service got for trying to protect the Appalachian Trail where it crossed the western Maine ski mountain? How Congress, and even famed peacemaker Sen. George Mitchell, had to get involved to resolve the 20-year impasse? How the federal government ended up paying $4 million for less than 1,000 acres?

“We wouldn’t step into a place where the landowners don’t want us there. We’ve learned our lesson the hard way,” Shean-Hammond said.

Such reactions don’t scare Jym St. Pierre, the Maine director for RESTORE: The North Woods, the Massachusetts-based group that with a couple of thousand members began advocating a national park in earnest in 1994.

“We know Congress is not going to pass a bill tomorrow saying ‘OK, let’s pass this park’ … It’s too big of an idea,” said St. Pierre, whose low-key manner and natural reticence are a far cry from environmental activists such as Jonathan Carter, whose agendas increasingly have been drawing attention during the past few years.

The time frame for creation of such a park is “beyond the human time scale,” he said. It’s a 100-year project that is still in its very early phase.

Old idea

The huge park and preserve are being touted, chiefly by RESTORE, as a means to protect the woods of Maine from timber harvesting and development. As the last vast unbroken stretch of timberland in America that is home to scenic rivers and lakes, gorges and mountains, the area is worthy of national protection, the group says.

It needs to be preserved, St. Pierre said, because 99 percent of Maine’s land is “manipulated,” mostly for logging. Only 1 percent is devoted to wilderness at a time when the public is demanding more wild places where they can go to get away from jobs, cars, cellular phones and other people.

The park and preserve would cover a large swath of privately owned timberland stretching 60 miles from Millinocket west to the Quebec border and 30 miles north from Greenville to Clayton Lake. It would encompass well-known landmarks such as Moosehead Lake, Katahdin Iron Works and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. It would surround Baxter State Park, which would remain a separate entity.

The idea of preserving such a large area of Maine has been around for more than a century, said St. Pierre, who is a Maine native and a 1974 graduate of the University of Maine with an undergraduate degree in philosophy. He earned a master’s in natural resources from UM in 1976.

After Henry David Thoreau visited the area in 1853, the naturalist and writer wrote that the land should be “a national preserve” to protect it and the wildlife and native peoples who lived there.

In the early 1900s, lawyer and conservationist John Francis Sprague suggested in his Journal of Maine History that a national park be created in the Katahdin region. “If a portion of Maine’s northern wilderness could be set apart for … all of the animals and all of the songbirds … what a national park it would be,” Sprague wrote in 1916.

Then came Gov. Percival Baxter, named last year as Maine’s visionary of the century by Bangor Daily News readers. He opposed the idea of a national park in the region because he wanted to create his own park around Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest mountain. Baxter used his money to acquire the land and to endow a park around the mountain.

“That’s the history of conservation in Maine – rich people do it for us,” St. Pierre said, citing the examples of Baxter State Park and Acadia National Park, which was created, in large part, out of land donated by the Rockefeller family.

Or, he said, the federal government mandates that lands be protected. Such was the case with the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, which was included in the National Wild and Scenic Waterway program at the behest of Sen. Edmund Muskie. The state had said it would manage the waterway on its own, but Muskie did not think its efforts were sufficient.

Several Maine state parks were created during the New Deal as federal recreation demonstration projects to create jobs. The areas were later turned over to the state to manage.

Former LURC official

St. Pierre hopes to break this cycle of dependence on private and federal initiative. A former deputy director of the state’s Land Use Regulation Commission, he now talks up the park full time.

He became a convert to the idea while working at LURC. The agency is charged with protecting the state’s 10.4 million acres of Unorganized Territories by determining what sort of development should be allowed. However, LURC deals with the issue on a piecemeal basis, only getting involved when a project requires a permit from the agency.

Time and time again, St. Pierre said, he was told by people living in the area that if northern Maine were to be saved from overharvesting and development, a national park should be created.

So, he left the state’s employ in 1989 and went to work for the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club before joining RESTORE in 1994.

The group originally proposed a 2.7 million-acre preserve in northern Maine, which would have included a mix of public ownership, easements and continued private ownership. Again, St. Pierre was told that if his group really wanted a national park, that’s what they should be advocating for.

The concept evolved into a 3.2 million-acre park and preserve, an idea that has particularly offended those who depend on logging and some forms of recreation for their livelihood. Hunting and snowmobiling are allowed on national preserves, but not in parks. Logging is banned in both.

The group distributes a Maine Woods National Park and Preserve brochure that looks just like the official brochures handed out at real national parks. But it hasn’t proposed formal boundaries to show what would be parkland and what would be preserve.

If such an entity were to be created, it would be the second-largest national park in the lower 48 states. The largest is Death Valley National Park in California, which encompasses 3.4 million acres. At today’s land prices, it would cost between $600 million and $900 million to buy the land for the Maine woods park – less than Americans spend each year on Christmas trees, according to a RESTORE newsletter.

But, that’s all way down the road.

The usually glum St. Pierre happily predicts: “Something big in the north woods is going to happen. The boundaries will be different. It will have a different name. We’ll be a footnote in the history books. But that’s OK.”

Uphill battle

For now, St. Pierre and RESTORE and other groups that back the park concept have their work cut out for them.

While three polls this year have found that the majority of the public statewide supports such a park, opposition from those who live in the area that would be inside or near the park boundary has been vehement.

Not even all environmentalists are supportive. The park idea is supported by a slew of small groups such as Jonathan Carter’s Forest Ecology Network and the Sierra Club’s Maine chapter, but the state’s two major conservation groups – the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Audubon Society – have taken a wait-and-see attitude. Several other groups such as The Nature Conservancy already are involved directly in other forms of preservation in the area such as land purchase and easements.

The director of the agency that oversees the vast and sparsely populated 10.4 million acres of Unorganized Territories where the park would be located is opposed to the idea.

“I don’t think we need a national park,” said John Williams, director of the Land Use Regulation Commission.

“People can use the area recreationally now,” he said. “A national park would take away from the experience.”

Fearing the economic and social fallout from a big federal land grab, Bangor, Greenville, Millinocket and other towns, plus the Piscataquis County commissioners, have passed resolutions opposing a park. Because of the “threatening” nature of the outcry, St Pierre canceled meetings this fall scheduled in northern Maine to talk about the idea.

To become a reality, a national park must go through several formal steps. First, Congress must pass a bill to commission the National Park Service to conduct a feasibility study that would look at whether such a park makes sense.

In conducting such a study, the park service must determine whether the area in question is of national significance and therefore worthy of federal protection. Next, it must determine whether a full-fledged park, which means federal ownership of all the land, is the best way to preserve the area.

Efforts that include a mix of private and public ownership and easements, like what is now taking place in the north woods with the support of the state, some private landowners and many environmentalists, is preferable, said Shean-Hammond of the park service. “We see [federal] ownership as the last resort,” she said.

Landowner opposition

Another problem here is that no large landowner within the proposed park area has said it will sell its land to the federal government.

“It’s not on our radar screen,” said Jim Lehner, the Northeast region general manager for Plum Creek Timber Co. Plum Creek is one of the largest landowners in the area RESTORE proposes be included in the park and preserve. The company’s land, and that of the state’s other large timber companies, is now open to the public for recreational use, so a park is not needed.

“We’re very opposed to a national park. It does not benefit anyone,” Lehner said. His company has sold thousands of acres in the Moosehead Lake area to the state.

Things would be different if the public were behind the project.

“If all Maine and the United States was in agreement … then we might consider a land exchange,” Lehner said.

While park opponents have predicted that if a feasibility study is done, a park will be created, history does not bear this out. Less than a quarter of areas studied have ultimately become entities within the National Park Service system, which includes national parks, preserves, monuments, historic sites and other entities.

RESTORE has collected signatures from nearly 100,000 people in Maine and other states calling for such a study. Hundreds of businesses primarily affiliated with the outdoor industry also have signed onto the idea.

The support of Maine’s congressional delegation would be crucial, but all four members have expressed their unequivocal opposition to the whole park idea.

“What part of no do you not understand?” 2nd District Rep. John Baldacci said of his reaction to the park proposal. “It goes against every grain in me.”

He said a park is a bad idea because it would take a large amount of land out of timber production, which would hurt the local economy. Instead, he said, more emphasis should be placed on getting all the state’s landowners to commit to forest certification and to increasing the in-state processing of wood to boost the area’s economy.

“A park puts up a white flag. [It says] we give up,” Baldacci said.

No economic salvation

First District Rep. Tom Allen has said that he would support a study of the potential impact of a park – and other economic development proposals – on the area. Such a study should not be done by the park service, but by a university or other independent entity. It would focus on the economic future of northern Maine and what should be done to improve it, rather than simply focusing on a potential park, Allen said.

Two University of Maine researchers recently did a study that looked at the economic impact of conservation lands in the northern forest, which stretches across the top of the country from Minnesota to Maine. The region is heavily dependent on logging, and there are no national parks there.

“We don’t find evidence that [conservation land] shuts down every business within 100 miles,” said Andrew Plantinga, a resource economics professor. “But, we don’t find evidence that it is an economic development tool for failing economies.”

The study found that setting aside land for conservation purposes had little impact on local economies. A few more people might move to a region because such land means opportunities to hike and hunt, but preserving land does not lead to more jobs, the study concluded.

It did not address what type of jobs are lost and gained. Typically, jobs in the forest products industry pay well and include benefits. A national park would bring service-sector jobs, which do not pay as well and often do not include benefits.

If the park service ever does a feasibility study and determines that a Maine Woods National Park is appropriate, Congress would then have to pass a bill authorizing its creation. Typically, members of Congress from the state where a new park would be located introduce such legislation. Again, none of the four members of the state’s delegations have said they would put forth such a bill.

The only state that has had large parks imposed upon it against its wishes is Alaska, but most of the land there is already owned by the federal government.

Another route people have mentioned to make a park is through presidential proclamation. However, the president can only designate land the federal government already owns as a national park. Most of the land targeted in Maine is in private hands.

The Maine woods park idea has also failed to gain solid support from major national groups. The National Parks Conservation Association, a private group that advocates and raises money for the parks, recently released a list of the 10 areas it believes should be added to the national park system. The Maine woods park is not among them.

Eileen Woodford, the group’s Northeast director, said the Maine proposal is definitely something it likes – in the long term. She said the area is the “last great intact ecosystem in the East.” Some of the area that RESTORE includes in its proposed park was on NPCA’s 1988 list of areas that deserve protection.

While supportive of the park idea, Woodford said the area could also be protected in other ways, such as by being made into a preserve or through private conservation efforts like those that are taking place.

She said it was unlikely, but not unheard of, for a national park to be created over the objections of a state’s congressional delegation and residents.

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