A pair of economic studies should change the debate over whether a national park makes sense for northern Maine.

Until last week, the conflict had been cast as a clash between competing views of preservation. The pro-park forces talked about preserving natural beauty, and anti-park activists talked about preserving a way of life for the people who live, work, snowmobile and hunt in the great North Woods.

But the recent studies commissioned by Elliotsville Plantation Inc., a development company founded by pro-park philanthropist Roxanne Quimby, recasts the debate as competing visions of growth. Quimby’s name is a flash point in much of rural Maine, where she is the personification of urban elitism in the eyes of many residents — someone more concerned about rocks and trees than she is about them. But Quimby didn’t conduct the research, she just paid for it. And its findings should not be rejected before they are thoroughly examined.

The peer-reviewed analysis, conducted by Headwaters Economics of Montana, shows that even without a national park, the two-county Katahdin region has changed dramatically over the past four decades, and there is no reason to expect that the old economy will return.

JOBS IN THE WOODS

They are cutting down about the same number of trees over time, but the number of people working in the woods has declined dramatically. What has grown is the service sector, especially travel and tourism. Contrary to popular belief, not all service jobs are low-paying, and personal income, adjusted for inflation, has grown in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties over the last 40 years, according to the research.

So, given that the economy is changing, the real question should be whether the region, and the state, would be better off, with or without a national park and recreation area. The reports speak to this.

The researchers looked at the impact of keeping 150,000 acres of privately owned woodland in sustainable production and determined that it would create 21 jobs for workers bringing wood to mills. It would probably not be enough volume to demand construction of a new mill or require the creation of any new jobs in existing mills. The total job projections, including indirectly related jobs, would be about 50.

The economists looked at other areas that have national parks and recreation areas and showed how the region would benefit from increased travel and tourism business and the expansion of businesses across a range of sectors, which would include higher-paid jobs.

The two-county area around the proposed national park and recreation area east of Baxter State Park lagged behind the national average for population growth, personal income and employment since 1970.

LINKED TO GROWTH

All 10 areas in the study that host national parks outperformed the national averages in all three categories, especially the four that have both parks and recreation areas.

The difference is not the jobs inside the park themselves, but in the gateway communities, which grow when visitors from other states and countries come, stay and spend money. National parks attract visitors who are seeking more comforts than the hardy campers who visit Baxter State Park, and these visitors are prepared to pay for them. That means jobs in hotels and restaurants, but it also means more work for doctors, dentists, teachers and engineers.

These studies are not the last word, but they should change the conversation.

If critics dispute the questions these economists asked or the conclusions they have reached, they should challenge them. But they should challenge them with data and not just gut feelings, regional prejudices or personal attacks. The best way to resolve it would be with a neutral, well-designed feasibility study, but that has been blocked by park opponents.

These new studies add weight to the argument that a national park in northern Maine would help the local economy as well as preserve a precious resource. The pressure is now on park opponents to show what they think would be better for the economy of rural Maine.