The most successful drives to create new national parks come with “strong community support,” U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said Thursday during a swing through Maine that included 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, a co-founder of Burt’s Bees and a prominent environmentalist, to give 70,000 acres east of Baxter State Park to the National Park Service.
In a news conference after a tour of L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Salazar said the late-afternoon forum in Millinocket gave him a chance to listen to people who are affected by the proposal. He was accompanied at the forum by Jon Jarvis, the National Park Service director, who told reporters that the park service also has no position yet on the issue.
Also accompanying Salazar on his one-day tour of Maine — which focused on the outdoor recreation industry’s economic impact and included a visit to a University of Maine lab where research is being done on deep-water offshore wind energy — was a prominent critic of the proposal for a new national park, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
Collins, R-Maine, said at the news conference that she believes Maine is best served by keeping the land private, so it can be used for a mix of recreation, conservation and forest product industry.
Collins said 95 percent of Maine’s forests is in private hands, and that private landowners have a tradition of being “good stewards” and allowing public access. She said she also is concerned that the park proposal could jeopardize thousands of forest product-related jobs in Maine.
The proposed new national park would be nearly twice the size of Acadia National Park, which attracts about 2 million visitors a year.
Quimby and other proponents say a national park in northern Maine would spur more tourism and be an economic benefit for the region. They want the National Park Service to study the feasibility of a new park.
Residents appeared to be divided at the meeting in Millinocket. Some who oppose the idea said any studies would be a waste of time. “There is just no support on any level for a national park,” said Millinocket Town Councilor Mike Madore.
Others suggested that a study would enable people to make an informed decision.
“It seems to be a great gift (that) Roxanne Quimby is giving us,” said Daniel McCaw of Old Town, who isn’t sold on the park idea but wants an economic feasibility study.
About 300 people turned out for the session, which was moderated by Salazar.
He told participants that he has two options: order a study to answer residents’ questions, or order a full-blown feasibility study. No decision has been made, he said.
Salazar shrugged off the suggestion that he came to the region at the request of Quimby, who serves on the National Parks Foundation Board, the parks service’s charitable partner. Quimby, who didn’t attend the meeting, was preparing for a previously scheduled presentation in Medway.
“I invited myself,” Salazar told residents.
In a prepared statement released after the meeting in Millinocket, Salazar noted that Quimby has purchased an additional 30,000 acres and has offered to set them aside for the state for traditional uses such as snowmobiling and hunting.
Salazar, a former Democratic senator, said successful park proposals have had the support of their local congressional delegations. The donation of land to the park service is subject to approval by Congress and the Obama administration.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, also opposes the Maine national park proposal, although she said it should be up to the local community to decide what is best for the area.
Snowe said in an interview Wednesday that she is concerned about “subtracting land from multiple uses.”
Rep. Mike Michaud, who lives in East Millinocket, near Baxter State Park, appears to be dubious about the proposal. He said in a prepared statement Thursday 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 could not attend the event in Millinocket because of a 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.
Park proponents say the Katahdin region suffers from a high unemployment rate and a foundering paper mill and forest products industry, and that a national park — which Quimby has said she would endow with $20 million and then raise an equal amount — would bring droves of visitors to the area.
Jarvis of the National Park Service noted in an interview that while there may be differing opinions about the park proposal, some controversy is often part of the initial discussion over a new national park. Even the creation of the Grand Canyon’s national park was controversial, he said.
Jarvis said there is no similar East Coast forestland on the park service’s roster, so he sees “a value in that type of place being protected,” whether by the park service or other methods.
Salazar’s visit to Maine is part of a five-day tour of New England. It also is part of an Obama administration rural-economy initiative during the August congressional recess, highlighted by the president’s three-day swing through the Midwest.
Salazar said in Freeport that L.L. Bean is evidence of just how much impact outdoor recreation can have, citing the company’s $1.4 billion in revenue 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: