FREEPORT — The most successful drives to create a new national park come armed with “strong community support,” U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said today, as he began a swing through Maine that will include a public forum in Millinocket on the proposed North Woods National Park.

Salazar said the Obama administration does not yet have a position on the proposal by
Roxanne Quimby, the co-founder of Burt’s Bees and a prominent environmentalist, to give 70,000 acres next to Baxter State Park to the National Park Service.

Salazar said during a news conference following a tour here of the L.L. Bean flagship store that kicked off his day in Maine that he is attending the forum in Millinocket late this afternoon to listen to people affected by the issue. He will be accompanied at the forum by Jon Jarvis, National Park Service director, who also told reporters here this morning that the park service has no position yet on the issue and that he, too, is in Maine to listen to the community’s views.

But also accompanying Salazar on his one-day tour of Maine – which is focusing on the outdoor recreation industry’s economic impact and will include a visit to a University of Maine lab in Orono where research is being done on deepwater offshore wind energy – is a prominent critic of the proposal to create a new Maine national park, Sen. Susan Collins.

Collins, R-Maine, said at the news conference that she believes Maine is best served by keeping the land private, where it can be used for a mix of recreation, conservation and forest product industry purposes. Collins said that 95 percent of Maine’s forests are in private hands, and that private landowners have a tradition of being “good stewards” and allowing public access to those lands. She said she also is concerned the park proposal could jeopardize thousands of forest product-related jobs in Maine.

“Mixed use of (Maine) forests has served us well,” Collins said.

Salazar said he has spoken to Collins several times about the park proposal, adding he is sure he will hear arguments on both sides of the issue in Millinocket. “The reason we are going is to listen to people,” Salazar said.

The proposed new national park would be nearly double the size of Acadia National Park, which attracts about 2 million visitors a year.

Quimby and other proponents say a new national park in northern Maine would spur more tourism and be an economic plus for the region. Proponents want the National Park Service to study the feasibility of the proposed new national park.

Salazar indicated that no decision has been made about whether to undertake a feasibility study. However, he said that national parks and heritage areas have proven to be good economic engines in other places, including a Blackstone River heritage area in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and the Great Sand Dunes National Park in his home state of Colorado. Salazar, a former Democratic senator, also noted that successful park proposals have had the support of the local congressional delegation. Congress must approve handing over the land to the park service, and the Obama administration would have to back the move, as well.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, also is opposed to the Maine national park proposal, though she said it should be up to the local community to decide what is best for their area. But Snowe said in an interview Wednesday that she is concerned about “subtracting land from multiple uses.”

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd, in whose congressional district is the proposed national park and who lives in East Millinocket, appears dubious about the proposal, saying in a statement today that “Maine has a proud tradition of supporting our outdoor heritage, and I’ve long been supportive of conservation efforts that maintain access for traditional uses. But right now, there are a number of questions about this proposal that still need to be answered.”

Michaud is unable to attend the Millinocket event later today because of a prior scheduling conflict, but said he wants “to hear more from the communities impacted by it. I’d also want to know specifically how it would impact local economies and effectively balance conservation with recreational access, local land management, and the needs of our local businesses and industries.”

The Maine Legislature has passed a resolution opposing the proposal, which would have to be approved by Congress, and some Millinocket Town Council members also are opposed. However, other civic and business groups in the local community are more supportive and at least want to study the feasibility of the new park.

Park proponents say the Katahdin region suffers economically from a high unemployment rate and a foundering paper mill and forest products industry, and say a new national park – which Quimby has said she would endow with a $20 million fund and then raise an equal amount on top of that – would bring droves of visitors to the area.

The National Park Service’s Jarvis noted in an interview after the news conference that while there may be differing opinions currently about the Maine park proposal, some controversy is often part of the initial discussion over a new national park. Even the Grand Canyon’s creation was controversial, Jarvis said. Jarvis said that there is no similar East Coast forestland now included in the park service’s roster of lands, so he sees “a value in that type of place being protected,” whether by the park service or through other methods.

It was the topic of the outdoor recreation economy that was the intended focus of Salazar’s trip.

Salazar’s visit to Maine is part of a five-day tour of New England. The secretary’s tour also is part of an Obama administration rural economy initiative push during the August congressional recess, highlighted nationally by a three-day swing by President Obama through the Midwest.

Salazar said in Freeport that L.L. Bean is evidence of just what a big impact outdoor recreation can have, citing the company’s $1.4 billion in revenues and 5,000 employees, a number that company officials said rises to about 10,000 when part-time workers are added during the holiday season.

Collins said tourism generates one out of every five sales dollars in Maine, and that one in every six jobs in Maine is related to tourism.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: jriskind@mainetoday.com Twitter: Twitter.com/MaineTodayDC.