Mr. LePage goes to Washington

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Intent on fighting the last battle, Gov. Paul LePage visited the nation’s capital last week to boost a Trump administration effort to curtail the federal powers that created the new Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument.

 LePage has long opposed the new national monument established by President Obama on land east of Baxter State Park. It is created on lands purchased by Burt’s Bees entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby, and donated to the federal government along with a $40 million endowment.

The Trump administration, along with Republicans in Congress, are seeking to limit a President’s ability to designate land or historic sites as National Monuments without Congressional or state legislative approval. And they want to undo the designations that were made under Obama and President Bill Clinton.

LePage criticized the new National Monument in testimony before a Congressional committee on Tuesday, and on Friday Interior Secretary Scott Pruitt included the Katahdin National Monument on a list whose status will be reviewed. Several of the Monuments to be reviewed are in Western states, especially Utah, where Obama preserved 1.3 million acres at Bears Ears National Monument, antagonizing the oil and gas industry. Republicans, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are backing laws that would require state Legislatures to approve new national monuments.

The Katahdin Monument was born in controversy, with many local residents fearful of federal government intrusion and a loss of hunting and snowmobiling. But over years of public meetings, acceptance of the Monument has grown. Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son, testified at the same hearing that many local residents now favor the park, and that the economy is improving in an area that has lost forest products jobs. 

The present administration, buoyed by a Republican Congress, seems determined to limit federal powers to preserve land and historic sites under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which has been used by many Presidents since it was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. One of his first designations was the 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon. 

One of the earliest and most well-known of conservationists, Roosevelt wrote widely on conservation: “It is an incalculable added pleasure to any one’s sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.”

Gov. LePage’s efforts will re-ignite a battle which was painful and divisive. While many residents were leery, the foundation which donated the property, now run by St. Clair, has worked hard to build relationships with residents in that area, and to accommodate their concerns. Unlike many national parks, hunting and snowmobiling will be allowed. In recent months many former opponents have observed the economic benefits of the Monument.

But the new review of the Monument status could cast doubt on the burgeoning benefits where many former opponents are now advocates.

The route to land preservation is never without pain. Maine’s land preservation hero, Gov. Percival Baxter, ended up purchasing the land for Baxter State Park, including Katahdin, because the Legislature refused to do it. And his efforts to preserve Katahdin were roundly ridiculed in many Maine newspapers. No major land preservation effort is easy when fears of government ownership remain prevalent and, if left to a popular vote, the path to preservation would be difficult.

The necessity of wilderness was described by Bernard de Voto, a writer who was familiar with Maine, having documented what he saw as the tawdry nature of Route 1 in 1955.

It was a “jerry-built neon-lighted slum, an unintermitted eyesore of drive-ins, diners, souvenir stands, purulent amusement parks, cheap-jack restaurants and the kind of cabins that my companion describes as mailboxes.”

Those experiences may have solidified De Voto’s view of the need for preservation. “It is imperative to maintain portions of the wilderness untouched so that a tree will rot where it falls, a waterfall will pour its curve without generating electricity, a trumpeter swan may float on uncontaminated water — and moderns may at least see what their ancestors knew in their nerves and blood.”

The stage is set for Republicans to make the preservation of wilderness more difficult. The Interior Department will accept comments on the monument review starting May 12.

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