Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday accused Sen. Angus King of “ignoring the will of Mainers” by inviting the top National Park Service official to the state next week to hear from residents about a potential national monument in the Katahdin area.

King’s office responded that Maine people deserve a “frank and open conversation … on such a significant issue,” and stated that the senator plans to reiterate his concerns about a national monument directly to National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis next week.

The terse exchange between LePage and King – and the governor’s suggestion that King secretly supports a Katahdin-area monument – is the latest political saber rattling over an issue that has deeply divided Mainers. It also comes at a time when LePage, a Republican, is talking openly about challenging King, an independent, for his U.S. Senate seat in 2018.

Entrepreneur and conservationist Roxanne Quimby has offered to donate 87,500 acres east of Baxter State Park to the federal government for either a national park or national monument. In a sign that the Obama administration is giving Quimby’s proposal serious consideration, Jarvis plans to meet with Katahdin-area elected officials Monday afternoon and then meet with the public Monday evening in Orono.

CLASHING OVER ‘OPEN DIALOGUE’

King formally invited Jarvis to Maine and plans to moderate both meetings. But LePage, who ardently opposes Quimby’s proposal, criticized King in a press release Thursday headlined “Does Angus King Support a National Monument Against the Will of Mainers?”

“I think notifying the governor’s office would have been appropriate,” LePage said in the statement. “They seem like they have already made up their minds. Town after town has voted against federal control of the North Woods, and the Legislature passed my bill to limit federal jurisdiction over a national monument. Clearly, they don’t want an open dialogue on this issue.”

King’s office said the entire reason for Jarvis’ visit is to ensure that he hears all sides of that dialogue.

“Senator King firmly believes, as he always has, that Director Jarvis must hear directly from Mainers firsthand about this issue because an open and public dialogue is necessary, and that’s exactly why he urged Director Jarvis to visit the state,” said King spokesman Scott Ogden. “Additionally, counter to the assertions made by the governor’s office, Senator King’s office did inform the governor’s director of the Maine Forest Service about both public meetings prior to the public announcement and was told by him that he would personally notify the governor of the meetings.”

As Thursday’s events illustrate, Jarvis is walking into a heated and, at times, ugly debate.

Quimby, co-founder of the Burt’s Bees personal products line, now owns a substantial chunk of the former industrial forestlands surrounding Baxter State Park. The Elliotsville Plantation nonprofit headed by her son, Lucas St. Clair, now manages the land east of Baxter for recreation as Katahdin Woods and Waters Recreation Area.

The family views a national monument designation as a step toward its long-term goal of creating a North Woods national park.

National parks require congressional approval – an unlikely scenario in Quimby’s case, given the Maine delegation’s mixed views on the proposal. But presidents can designate national monuments via executive order, as Obama has done more than 20 times during his administration. Several parks, including Acadia National Park and Grand Canyon National Park, were first brought into federal ownership as national monuments.

Supporters argue that a national monument would bring tourists and jobs to an area struggling with the loss of several paper mills. But opponents have raised concerns that allowing the federal government a toehold in the region could hamper industrial redevelopment in the area while leading to restrictions on outdoor activities such as snowmobiling, hunting and trapping.

PUBLIC, TOWNS TO HAVE THEIR SAY

At least four towns in the Katahdin region have taken positions opposing a park or monument. The Legislature passed a watered-down version of LePage’s bill this year withholding the state’s consent to federal land acquisition for a national monument. But the measure is symbolic because state consent is not needed.

Jarvis will meet at noon Monday with elected representatives from Millinocket, East Millinocket, Medway, Patten and Stacyville at the Katahdin Region Higher Education Center in East Millinocket, according to a schedule released by King’s office. At 5 p.m., Jarvis will hear from the public during a meeting in the University of Maine’s Hauck Auditorium.

The Orono meeting is expected to be well attended by individuals on both sides of the issue. Several groups supporting the national monument proposal plan to offer free charter bus service from Portland to Orono – a fact that LePage pointed to in his release accusing King and such groups of “ignoring the will of Mainers.”

“The fix is in,” LePage said.

While Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, has come out in favor of Quimby’s proposal, King joined with Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin, both Republicans, in penning a letter to Obama in which they expressed “serious reservations and significant concerns” about a potential national monument designation. The three were disappointed by Jarvis’ written response, and King sent a letter to Jarvis in March requesting that he visit the Katahdin region.

“I strongly believe that the voices of those who call the Katahdin region home and who create and sustain jobs there are a fundamental part of this ongoing discussion,” King wrote. “For this reason, I would encourage you to visit the region, as you have done in the past, to hear directly from the residents and to more specifically address their concerns, questions and ideas. As I am sure you would agree, their viewpoints are critical to this ongoing discussion.”

LePage has stepped up his public criticism of King in recent months even as he suggests he will challenge the popular independent in 2018, unless he lands another job in Washington.

“If I’m not into the Trump administration, I will be running against Angus King,” LePage told attendees of a town hall-style forum in Lewiston last week.

 


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