It’s striking that three-quarters of the Maine congressional delegation chose Thanksgiving week to again express displeasure at the prospect of federally protected land in northern Maine. Up to now, the argument has been chiefly about a Maine Woods National Park, proposed by landowner and potential donor Roxanne Quimby, now represented by her son, Lucas St. Clair.

As suggested in this column in July, however, a national monument also can be designated through executive action; St. Clair has raised the possibility, and the Department of Interior is considering it. It’s that development that prompted the latest delegation letter, this one addressed to President Barack Obama.

The delegation makes a show of considering both sides, acknowledging that, by a 2-1 margin, Mainers favor a Maine Woods National Park, and that regional chambers of commerce do, too. Yet they present the issue as involving a local veto, and put far more weight on straw votes in two area towns than on the views of the majority of their constituents.

The question is why. Establishing a national monument centered on the East Branch of the Penobscot River would scarcely inconvenience anyone in Millinocket, East Millinocket or Medway, where opposition is concentrated. The proposed site lies within the unorganized territory, contiguous to Baxter State Park, which, as a wilderness preserve, provides important, but entirely different recreational opportunities than a national park or monument.

The remaining argument against federal ownership is that restricting timber harvesting within a 150,000-acre area would somehow damage the Maine economy. Twenty years ago, when Restore: The North Woods was touting a 3.2-million acre park, that point had some credibility, but the area now proposed amounts to less than 2 percent of the North Woods.

And, as the former paper mill towns have a hard time acknowledging, the paper industry, which requires intensive, short-rotation management, is dangerously near collapse. There are no mills left in Millinocket and East Millinocket, where Great Northern Paper once ruled. The Lincoln mill will be sold for scrap, following Bucksport into oblivion. The Old Town pulp mill is unlikely to reopen.

The hard truth about Maine’s paper industry is that the U.S. companies that once dominated — International Paper, Champion, S.D. Warren, Boise Cascade, Georgia Pacific — stopped investing, and their mills’ ultimate demise was all too predictable. Mills likely to survive in Maine were rebuilt by foreign companies, from Canada, Finland and South Africa, which saw opportunities American businesses did not.

The Maine woods remain an asset of immense scenic, ecological, recreational and commercial value. But any realistic plan to profitably use wood fiber needs to orient itself to the future, not the past.

Why a region with no concrete economic development opportunities in prospect should spend so much effort fighting the “threat” of a national park is a question probably better addressed through psychology than state or federal policy.

That’s what’s most troubling about the delegation letter. Rather than lead and promote real opportunity, the delegation talks vaguely about federal support for “development and use of wood products and fibers, advanced engineering projects that use wood, and support for policies that will create strong markets for wood products.”

The federal government already is doing that, and the University of Maine has done impressive research. But commercial development depends on profitable applications, and will take years to bring to fruition. The national park or monument can be created immediately through public policy.

The most clear-sighted delegation member remains Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, who said the monument, like the park, “would bring much-needed economic development to Northern Maine” and “greatly benefit the state by bringing in thousands of visitors and creating hundreds of jobs for the region.”

It really comes down to fear of change. While the delegation letter makes numerous references to “tradition,” a national monument can honor and enlarge that tradition. The Maine woods — like the Maine coast — has near-mythic status in the national culture. Just as we have Acadia for the coast, an inland park would greatly enhance, not detract from, everything we prize about our state.

This isn’t just about economic development, or public opinion. America’s national parks have proven their value in preserving parts of our vast continent, inspiring generations and offering an alternative to seeing our natural bounty solely as commercial real estate.

In time, Quimby may be seen as a benefactor of Maine just as Percival Baxter, the donor of Baxter State Park, came to be — though it took decades for Maine to appreciate Baxter’s vision. That would be something for which we can all give thanks.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 30 years. Email at [email protected].


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