Capitol Notebook: King, Collins should back North Woods park plan

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Among the latest volleys in the fusillade hurled by Gov. Paul LePage last week was a vow to build a road through land proposed for a new national park in northern Maine.

The land is owned by Roxanne Quimby, who seeks to donate it to the federal government as the basis for a new national park east of Baxter State Park. The governor, who opposes the plan, threatened to build a road to access state-owned land nearby.

It is just the latest salvo in a decades-long North Woods park debate that will come to a head this year as President Obama weighs a plan to designate the area for a national monument. A national park requires congressional action, but a national monument can be enacted by Obama, and could serve as a prelude to a national park.

In Quimby’s proposal, land would also be set aside for a national recreation area, where the “traditional uses” of hunting, snowmobiling and ATV riding would be allowed. She has also offered a $40 million endowment for maintenance of a national park and the separate recreational area.

Maine U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, along with Second District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, are resisting the proposal for the national park, and thereby stalling a plan that could provide a needed economic shot in the arm for the beleaguered Katahdin region. They should get behind it. (First District Rep. Chellie Pingree supports the national park proposal.)

In a recent exchange of letters between King, Collins, Poliquin and national park officials, the delegation members outlined requirements for a national monument designation, at the same time criticizing the idea: “A national monument designation, however, would likely antagonize already divided local communities,” they said.

It is long past time for them to get on board, and the reluctance of King is especially baffling.

The Katahdin region has suffered an economic body blow, where paper mill jobs have vanished and housing prices have collapsed. Smart, forward-thinking officials should take action to help this area. A federal designation will bring tourism and full-time residents back to the area.

As Mainers, we know that we live in a place that is beautiful, and we can become attached to the traditional ways and slower-paced way of life that is our hallmark.

We have not always been good at planning for the future, but our elected leaders should help promote a vision that will adjust to the new economic reality that has challenged many areas of Maine in the last 20 years.

It is understandable that some residents worry about federal control, and perceived limits to continued timber harvesting or potential industrial development. But the state’s future lies more in tourism than the paper industry at this point. And a park proposal can certainly co-exist with continued timber harvesting and economic development in surrounding areas.

The creation of new national parks has often brought division. Acadia National Park, which started as a national monument, was divisive in its time. That park, which also celebrates its 100th birthday this year, is a crown jewel of the National Park System and draws many thousands of visitors to a region that now has a vibrant economy. And Percival Baxter was resisted by the Legislature as he sought to preserve the area that is now Baxter State Park.

A key challenge for Acadia now is the ballooning number of summer visitors. It’s reasonable to think that a significant number of these visitors who seek a true wilderness experience (which Acadia is not) would divert to a Katahdin area park. This would take the pressure off Acadia, while boosting the long-term economy in an inland area of the state. The potential benefits of this plan are profound, and our senators should lead on this issue.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.