More than 1,000 people packed an Orono meeting Monday evening to offer their opinions on the possible creation of a North Woods national monument.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, who served as moderator, said the event at the University of Maine and a smaller one earlier in the day in East Millinocket were set up as a chance for National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis to hear how Maine people feel about a 90,000-acre national park in the shadow of Mount Katahdin. He heard plenty from both sides.
As they filed out of private vehicles and more than a half dozen chartered buses, the throngs of people quickly spread across the front floor of the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono and then moved on to the balcony. King welcomed the audience.
“We want questions if you have them about specifics of what this all implies for this region and for Maine,” King said.
Having come from a smaller session in East Millinocket, Jarvis was already aware of how some locals felt about the possibility that President Barack Obama could accept 87,500 acres east of Baxter State Park as a gift from Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby and proclaim the parcel a national monument. Quimby would also donate $40 million to manage the land and establish an endowment.
Dozens of speakers for and against the proposal lined up to the microphones. Dan Sakura of the National Park Foundation said Quimby’s offer stood alongside other conservation giants such as Rockefeller family.
“That pledge is unprecedented, coupled with the endowment and the gift of land gives this generous offer on par with John D. Rockefeller at Grand Teton, the Rockefeller family at Acadia National Park and Lawrence S. Rockefeller at places like the Virgin Islands, so we’re very grateful,” Sakura said.
But some critics of the plan have challenged what they see as the federal government’s intrusion in the region. Others, including Island Falls native Jean Drexel, said they have been suspicious of Quimby’s motives ever since she was appointed to the National Park Foundation in 2010.
“And since that time she has donated huge sums of money to Obama and the National Park Service,” Drexel said. “How can this not be considered a conflict of interest when she’s on the board and one of many very wealthy members of the board? Yet she is the first and only to ask for a national monument.”
Others question why the Obama administration would be interested in the land, because it lacks cascading waterfalls, unusual rock formations or other natural attributes that would make it worthy of national monument status.
James Robbins of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont said most of the communities that would border the proposed monument oppose the plan for that reason.
“They voted against it because they live there and they know that a proposed park is mostly cutover land with nothing spectacular or historical about it that would attract tourists,” Robbins said.
But Quimby’s son Lucas St. Clair, who is also working to have the land designated as a national monument, said the acreage his mother wants to bestow to the nation is irrevocably connected with the histories of Maine’s native people, and with more recent arrivals as well.
“The lands that we are talking about helped to launch America’s conservation movement, they inspired Theodore Roosevelt and Henry David Thoreau,” St. Clair said. “From the silver maple floodplains of the east branch to the wild and remote Wassataquiok river to the top of Deasey Mountain where it feels like the whole world unfolds underneath your feet — this land will take your breath away.”
Most of the plan’s supporters cited the perceived economic benefits that would be derived from the national monument designation and that case was echoed by Jarvis.
“There is an economic benefit,” Jarvis said. “Every dollar invested in the national parks returns four dollars to the local economy.”
Officials with the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce have said that more than 400 recreation jobs will come to the region if the president proclaims Quimby’s land as a national monument.
Jarvis said he’ll take all of the input under consideration before making a recommendation to the president.