Why are we still talking about a national park or monument in the Millinocket region?

Since I’ve started blogging about the national park debate in the Katahdin region, I’ve been plagued by one unanswered question: Why are we still talking about a national park or monument at all? I mean, besides Roxanne Quimby wanting to have her land and other land designated as such. No matter which angle I look at it, the idea just doesn’t make sense.

In terms of desperately needed economic development, the national park debate — as a member of the Our Katahdin team said — is a “distraction.”

Park opponents — the ones to whom I’ve spoken have acted mostly in a volunteer capacity — have spent countless hours fighting to retain their right to develop, conserve, and access the resources in the region free of federal restrictions and land acquisitions. I can’t imagine the sums of money, the networks, and countless work hours on the park proponent side. Unfortunately the whole campaign has led to bitter divisiveness in hurting communities, something I’ve heard about from just about everyone I’ve spoke to and emailed.

Imagine if that sustained a focus had been on revitalization and unification rather than division.

From a conservation angle, it doesn’t make sense. For starters, there’s already internationally renowned Mount Katahdin and Baxter State Park. Further, there are ample ways to conserve and preserve forests while supporting sustainable use without the complications of federal government oversight and acquisition. I think most people of all political persuasions can agree our federal government is not overly functional at this time.

I’ve talked to opponents and proponents, looked at The Headwater Study commissioned by Elliotsville Plantation Inc., and I understand why critics are concerned about the applicability of the study.

I’ve looked at it from the tourism angle, and I’ve interviewed people. And still, the question lingers, why? Why doesn’t Quimby just donate the land to the state? Maybe it could be like an unattached annex to Baxter State Park and could include a campground for all the tourists that proponents say a national park would draw. Such a donation would be in line with the vision of Governor Baxter, himself, who did not want the federal government in the region.

The latest angle leaving me wondering why concerns documentation I received from Senator Susan Collins’s office. The report, titled, “National Park System: Establishing New Units” comes from the Congressional Research Service. It contains the kind of information that Quimby should be privy to as a member of the National Park Service Foundation Board of Directors.

Its seven pages include a pretty comprehensive look at the history of the National Park Service, the various designations and funds available under its umbrella, and the declaration process for both national parks and national monuments. National parks are declared by an act of Congress; national monuments are designated by the president, alone, a right established in the Antiquities Act.

The report discusses the criteria for consideration for national park status: national significance, suitability and feasibility. A nationally significant area is defined as “an outstanding example of a resource; exceptionally illustrates or interprets natural or cultural themes of our nation’s heritage; provides extraordinary opportunities for public enjoyment or scientific study; and contains a true, accurate and relatively unspoiled resource.”

We already have something like that. It’s called Baxter State Park.

Suitability refers to whether or not such a resource already exists within the system. I’m pretty sure the National Park Service already has large tracts of forest. Also the explanation goes on to read that the resource could be considered suitable, “unless a similar area is managed for public use by another agency.”

Which brings us, again, back to Baxter State Park — a similar, but better area managed for the public by The Baxter State Park Authority. The BSPA is a unique entity made up of the Maine Attorney General, the Commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Director of Maine Forest Service. They are charged with maintaining the park’s natural state for the enjoyment of the public, in other words, a another agency managing a similar area for public use.

Feasibility includes considerations like size of the area, current and potential uses for the land, land acquisition issues, and others. That includes considering local support. Votes in East Millinocket, Medway, and Millinocket show a majority of locals do not support a national park.

After reading the report, I am even more set against the suggestion that Quimby usurp Congress by having the president declare it a national monument that could later be designated a national park. After reading the language behind the criteria for a national park and the language in the Antiquities Act, I can’t help but see such a strategy as a manipulation of the process.

National monument status is for “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historical or scientific significance.” To apply these descriptions to Quimby’s land is a stretch. Baxter State Park is of historical or scientific significance, though, and it already exists.

As for the people who say that it’s Quimby’s land and she can do what she wants with it — it’s not that simple. Even if locals wanted it, what she wants to do with her land may not be in line with the language found in the report that governs the process at the national park service. Or in the language of the Antiquities Act. Should she get a free pass around that language?

And what about landowners near her? Shouldn’t they be able to do what they want with their land? Not if the federal government decides to expand the footprint of a park or monument beyond Quimby’s 87,500 acres. I have yet to post about the sometimes contentious ways the national park service can force landowners to relinquish their land. (See a sample letter to a “willing seller” with this link.)

Or about the Maine law that forces the state to cede lands to the federal government without question.

Fortunately, while blogging about the subject, I have learned quite a bit about what we should be talking about. There are bio-based industries that could be an ideal fit for the region. The board members of Our Katahdin mentioned the possibility of an empty mill site being used for a digital storage facility with the draw being how cold those facilities need to be kept —another ideal fit for our cold climate.

There’s the idea I’ve heard kicked around of using empty facilities for agricultural enterprises like Backyard Farms. There’s an economic group forming in Millinocket.  And there’s the continued presence of a strong forest products industry.  There’s so much to do, to try, to consider and to talk about.

So why are we still talking about a national park?

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.