May 07, 2021

Park backers want study of feasibility

A Maine Woods National Park in the northern and western parts of the state doesn’t need to be a restrictive place from which hunters and fishermen are banished. It doesn’t need to acquire land in any way other than from willing sellers. It doesn’t need to ban all vehicles, and it doesn’t need to cover 3.2 million acres, the number used by park advocates RESTORE: The North Woods.

In fact, it doesn’t even need to be called The Maine Woods National Park, supporters of the concept announced Monday. But it does have to be feasible.

Will LaPage of Holden, co-chairman of Americans for a Maine Woods National Park, said Monday that his group hopes to overcome some of the “acrimony and stridency of the past” by advocating for the best solution – whether that be one large park or a combination of a park, a wildlife reserve where hunting is allowed, and a national forest where some limited logging occurs.

“I don’t think anyone wants to take any of these economic options off the table right now,” LaPage said Monday. “Let’s work together and find the best way.”

The goal is to have some kind of federal protection in place by the end of the decade, according to a mission statement written by LaPage and his co-chairman, Roxanne Quimby.

LaPage, Quimby and their organization want the National Park Service to weigh in on what kind of protection might suit the North Woods. Monday, the group announced its intention to join RESTORE in advocating for a federal feasibility study to weigh the economic, ecological and social benefits and consequences of a national park. RESTORE has pushed unsuccessfully for a feasibility study since 1992.

“It’s silly to continue talking about a park when we don’t have a feasibility study,” LaPage said.

Local leaders near the proposed park area, however, said Monday that they aren’t inclined to negotiate over the details. Any kind of federal ownership is bad news for this region that for centuries has relied on the forest for logging and recreation jobs, said Gene Conlogue, who serves as Millinocket town manager as well as chairman of the Maine Woods Coalition, a group created to oppose a national park.

“We don’t want a national forest. We want a working forest that is held by private owners,” Conlogue said.

Americans for a Maine Woods National Park has about 120 members from 36 states. Its celebrity members – including actors Robert Redford, Ted Danson and Meryl Streep, Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson and scientist Edward O. Wilson – have received a great deal of attention. The group has a number of Maine members, including former University of Maine basketball star Cindy Blodgett, retired Acadia National Park Superintendent Paul Haertel and nature writer Robert Kimber.

The members formed the group one year ago with the goal of lending their names and their charitable contributions to creating a new national park in northern and western Maine.

Northern Maine has struggled for years, and a national park could be the economic engine that revitalizes the region, LaPage said. Land in the northern forest is changing hands regularly, often in sales to investment groups with no ties to Maine, so the state’s narrow window of opportunity is now, he said.

“Over time, if these lands are not properly protected, people will be shut out of places that Mainers have enjoyed for centuries,” Quimby said in a statement released Monday.

Quimby, the founder of Burt’s Bees and former member of the RESTORE board of directors, has purchased about 50,000 acres in the region, including the entire township of T5R8, to ensure their protection. Quimby has become a controversial figure in the towns surrounding her land as she is known for her vegetarian, low-impact lifestyle, and local people fear she will shut off access for traditional pursuits such as hunting, fishing and logging.

The Maine Woods Coalition estimates that 50 percent of the 3.2 million acres targeted by RESTORE is already under some kind of protection. The proposed park area includes Lily Bay State Park, part of the Appalachian Trail, and Baxter State Park in addition to large conservation easements such as the West Branch Project.

“It’s not needed. That’s the bottom line,” said John Simko, Greenville town manager and a member of the Maine Woods Coalition. “We already have all the best features of a national park without a national park being there.”

Congress may call for a feasibility study at any time, but none of Maine’s congressional delegates currently supports a park. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Republicans, and Reps. Tom Allen and Mike Michaud, both Democrats, have all gone on the record in agreement with Gov. John Baldacci to say that most Mainers don’t want a park, so no feasibility study is necessary.

There is precedent, however, with Congress and the National Park Service having supported a park for its national significance despite local opposition. It remains to be seen whether Americans for a Maine Woods National Park’s connections and finances are sufficient to convince Congress.

As for those who live in the area of the proposed park: “We’ve already taken our feasibility poll – we don’t want it,” said Conlogue.

“We don’t want the federal government owning the north Maine woods under any circumstances,” he said. “We like it the way it is.”

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