LePage is in the woods on new monument

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Gov. Paul LePage seems hopelessly lost and alone in the proverbial woods when it comes to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Testifying last week in front of a congressional panel tasked with determining whether the newly listed monument and others like it should see their designations rescinded, our colorful governor stupefyingly advocated against the designation. And, similar to his new-found figure, his arguments were relatively thin.

He’s worried about fires on the 87,500-acre parcel. He’s concerned about “uninspired” visitors to the new park moving on to the more impressive (in his estimation) Baxter State Park, which abuts the northern end of the monument. He doesn’t want loggers to lose access.

Back here in reality, it’s hard to say why LePage really opposes the designation other than he is opposed to the Katahdin Woods and Waters donor, Roxanne Quimby, the Burt’s Bees co-founder and environmental advocate who’s no friend of the governor.

Both LePage and the Trump administration, which this past weekend announced that the new Maine monument will be more stringently reviewed along with 21 other national monuments created since 1996, might be surprised to know that a conservative forebear may have supported the designation. Despite being a proud conservative who didn’t want government – or government-owned property, as in this case – to expand, President Ronald Reagan would probably disagree with LePage on this issue. He said as much, about 40 years ago, as the land conservation movement took off in America.

Before becoming president in 1981, Reagan wrote and broadcast a daily radio show from 1975-79 detailing his conservative views on topics of the day. (If you love Reagan or just want to learn more about true conservatism, I highly recommend finding a copy of the “Reagan in His Own Voice” CD.) In one of his 1,000-plus daily programs, Reagan critiqued an environmental group in California that was lobbying the state government to use taxpayer money to conserve land near the ocean. Reagan explained that he was supportive of the group’s aim to save some land from development, but he opposed their strategy of using taxpayers’ dollars for the purpose. He said if the group wanted to protect the land, they should simply buy it themselves. And if they had genuine support from the community they would easily be able to raise the money.

Reagan’s logic applies to the Woods and Waters designation because the multi-millionaire Quimby donated the land using her private wealth, through her nonprofit, Elliotsville Plantation. No taxpayer dollars were used to buy the property. It is Quimby’s wish to see it protected and federally managed, and, as the saying goes, this is a free country and she should be able to do what she wants with her own land. Plus, her offer keeps the taxpayer in mind since it includes an extra $40 million for ongoing management costs.

As an aside, I’m not sure how much this issue resonates with the average Mainer. We already have Acadia National Park, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, the Appalachian Trail corridor and Baxter State Park. We have oodles of other publicly owned land. Some might say the Katahdin Woods and Waters project is gilding the lily. The state’s public land holdings are so huge, in fact, someone would be hard-pressed to be able to visit them all in one lifetime. Do we really need another massive tract of open space? No matter how you answer that question, it’s still Quimby’s right to dispense with her land as she sees fit.

And Quimby’s certainly not the first rich person to donate to the national park system. Longtime park jewel Acadia was Rockefeller land, as was the Grand Tetons National Park. In fact, the Grand Tetons, located 10 miles south of Yellowstone National Park, was a concerted effort by conservationists to protect land surrounding Yellowstone, similar to the Woods and Waters effort as a buffer for Baxter State Park.

The governor is also particularly lost in the woods on this proposal because he’s seemingly blind to locals who want the new monument. Since the designation, media outlets are reporting that people in the Katahdin region are more convinced the monument will spur the local economy, not hurt it. Lucas St. Clair – Quimby’s son who was advocating on behalf of the designation last week in Washington – testified that businesses in the area are already seeing positive impacts, multi-million-dollar projects are in the works and that longtime opponents are saying an expanded national park in their backyard is a plus.

If varied interests agree Katahdin Woods and Waters is a good idea and it fits within an overarching conservative agenda that LePage has otherwise adopted, why is he advocating against the monument? It doesn’t make sense.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.