The Universal Notebook: The case for a Katahdin Woods national monument

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Just in time for the centennial of the National Park Service and the final year of the Obama administration, philanthropist Roxanne Quimby and her family are seeking national monument status for the land east of Baxter State park they have been assembling in hopes of it becoming a national park.

National monument status can be a first step toward a national park, Acadia National Park having begun life as Sieur de Monts national monument in 1916.

Let’s hope President Obama adds Quimby’s forest lands to the 19 properties he has designated national monuments.

Roxanne Quimby, founder of Burt’s Bees natural cosmetics, deserves credit for her foresight and perseverance. She is a classic American success story, having parlayed beeswax lip balm into a major company and a personal fortune. She has been spending that fortune for the past 17 years in the North Woods with an eye toward donating forest land as a national park.

Hallowell-based RESTORE: The North Woods deserves credit for tirelessly promoting the national park idea with a much grander scheme (one I support as well) to create a 3.2 million-acre Maine Woods National Park surrounding 200,000 acre Baxter State Park.

Quimby’s son Lucas St. Clair deserves credit for winning a great deal of popular support for the much more modest 150,000-acre national park and recreation area for which his family is now seeking national monument status.

In the best of all possible worlds, Maine’s congressional delegation would have introduced legislation to create the national monument, but U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, the state’ most progressive representative, is the only one of the four who supports the proposal unequivocally. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King pussyfooted around the proposal, sending a letter to Obama outlining nine conditions under which they could support the naming of a national monument.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin signed on to the letter to Obama, which was couched in terms of “serious reservations,” but when the press reported the letter as the delegation outlining a way forward, Poliquin insisted he actually opposed the proposal and planned to introduce legislation to limit a president’s power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to proclaim national moments. Poliquin’s bill is a non-starter that has veto written all over it.

A national park or monument east of Katahdin is supported by the majority of people in Maine, but it is opposed by groups such as the Maine Forest Products Council and Maine Woods Coalition.

One of the fears opponents have expressed is the loss of traditional recreational use of the woods. But the conditions placed on the proposed national monument, which were developed and agreed to by the Quimby family (not our equivocating congressional representatives) preserve those uses. Commercial logging and timber harvesting would be prohibited within the national monument, but then it already is. That’s Quimby’s right as a private property owner.

The most effective – though specious and dishonest – argument opponents make is the bogeyman of the federal government taking the property of unwilling sellers by eminent domain. That’s because, in order to appease folks who fear the 3.2-million Maine Woods National Park, Quimby is proposing to limit the park/monument to 150,000 acres, but she currently only owns 87,500 acres. She is also proposing to contribute $40 million to endow the land.

“The park would be limited to that size,” St. Clair says of the 150,000-acre figure, “but it could stay at 87,500 acres. If it is proclaimed a national monument, land would only be purchased from willing sellers. If it were to become a national park, we have drafted legislation stating that land cannot be acquired by the National Park Service by eminent domain. If the park were to expand it could only do so with donated land.”

Short-sighted people opposed Acadia National Park, Baxter State Park and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, too, so it’s no surprise that Poliquin and Gov. Paul LePage oppose the national monument. More reasonable people have been coming around to the idea in recent years, as it has become more and more apparent that the pulp and paper industry is dying and that the future of the North Woods lies in conservation and recreation.

But St. Clair says it’s hard for some to understand that his family has no ulterior motive in seeking national monument status as an interim step toward a national park.

“We’re given away $100 million in assets that we could otherwise use for ourselves,” he says. “We are not trying to get anything out of this. It is an act of philanthropy. I think it will prevail.”

So do I. A Katahdin Woods & Waters national monument makes good economic sense and good environmental sense.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.