This is an opinion column by longtime journalist Douglas Rooks.
The big day for the proposed Maine Woods National Monument arrived May 16, when National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis held two meetings, in Millinocket and Orono, to hear from Mainers about the designation sought by Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of the Burt’s Bees franchise, and her son, Lucas St. Clair.
There will be another hearing, staged by Congressman Bruce Poliquin on June 1, but it will be a noisy sideshow, since Poliquin bluntly opposes the plan without providing any cogent reasons.
That also sums up the opposition, which is intensely local, and tends to overshadow the broad support a new national park, or monument, has in Maine.
Reporting on the hearings was typical. The Bangor Daily News headlined that Jarvis heard “opposition” and “some support.” The Millinocket meeting was indeed dominated by opponents, numbering about 100. But the Orono forum, with 1,200 attending, saw supporters outnumbering opponents by at least 4-1. It wasn’t evident in reporting because Jarvis allowed the two sides to alternate, and there wasn’t time for everyone to speak.
In both appearances, Jarvis was fair, thorough and respectful – qualities once expected in Maine’s public meetings but now rare. He acknowledged opponents’ concerns, but also said the 89,000 acres Quimby wants to donate are “absolutely worthy” of inclusion in the National Park system.
By contrast, the previous long-running battle over Quimby’s donation showed she was a poor ambassador for her idea. As detailed in Queen Bee, the excellent new biography by former Maine Times writer Phyllis Austin, Quimby managed to alienate supporters as well as opponents. She was unable to work with the Nature Conservancy or the Trust for Public Land – respected national groups whose whole purpose is conserving land.
Quimby then made alarming comments about critics to Forbes magazine in 2011, saying they’re “in complete denial,” and that Maine, with an aging population and high obesity rate, is “a welfare state.” The reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that Quimby dropped from public view and even cut off contact with her biographer. It’s a tribute to Austin’s skills that Queen Bee is nonetheless a judicious and insightful portrait.
Another prominent figure trying to “walk back” previous statements is Sen. Angus King, who graciously invited Jarvis to Maine.
As governor from 1995-2003, King denounced the idea of a national park, though back then it was Restore’s 3.2 million acre plan – 36 times as large as the present project. More recently, he’s shifted to “listening,” perhaps like President Obama’s now famous “evolution” on same-sex marriage.
Also relevant is King’s experience with the 1999 endangered species listing for Atlantic salmon, which he condemned even more vociferously than the park. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service correctly designated river-specific protection for the rapidly disappearing fish, but King thought it threatened the fledgling salmon farming industry.
That version of the industry was unsustainable, however, fouling coastal waters and eventually wiping out its own crop through sea lice infestations. New, better managed fish farms co-exist with remaining native fish.
That’s the kind of outcome most of us look for in the Maine woods.
The opposition to the park/monument is, finally, rather sad.
When Millinocket was in its heyday, it tolerated Baxter State Park, twice as large as Quimby’s proposal. Now, with paper mills closed – in Millinocket, East Millinocket, Lincoln, Old Town, Madison and Bucksport — its very life is draining away.
Millinocket once had 7,770 people and now has 4,400, and a projected 2,300 by decade’s end unless its economy revives. There were once 235 high school graduates annually; now, there are 38. Why its people would oppose anything, like the park plan, that could bring 500 or more jobs to the area, is a mystery without a solution.
Those who claim the monument site features only “a lot of blackflies” are also sadly mistaken. The East Branch of the Penobscot River is a gentle wilderness, less spectacular than the world-famous whitewater of the West Branch. But the West Branch’s marvels are maintained by dams.
The East Branch watershed is largely undammed, and it’s much as it was when Henry David Thoreau paddled it in 1857. If all goes well, within a decade thousands could be seeing some of the same beauties.
This isn’t the first time a region dwelled amid past glories rather than charting a future for itself. As a mill town, Millinocket generally ignored the limited few on their way to Baxter, which is managed for wilderness.
A national monument could host far more visitors, with its economic impact proportionately larger. Most of those who now live in the Millinocket area may refuse to visit it. But perhaps their children will.
Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 31 years. Comment is welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org