In June 1916, President Woodrow Wilson accepted the donation of roughly 6,000 acres on Mount Desert Island to create the nation’s first federally owned park land east of the Mississippi River.
The place now known to many Mainers as simply “Acadia” didn’t start out as a national park but was, instead, among the country’s best-known parks that began life as “national monuments.”
A century later, supporters of a North Woods national park in Maine are pursuing a similar strategy.
Faced with continued opposition from some local residents and a leery congressional delegation, the groups have pivoted toward bestowing national monument status on the land as a park precursor. It’s a calculated shift motivated both by the political realities – particularly opposition to the proposal among some in the Katahdin region – and President Obama’s willingness to use his executive authority to create new protected areas without going through Congress.
“We see this as an interim step and a pretty realistic one,” said Lucas St. Clair, president of landowner Elliotsville Plantation Inc., and the son of Roxanne Quimby, the business entrepreneur and conservationist who originally purchased it.
The debate over the 75,000-acre North Woods park has raged for years. Supporters contend that a national park – composed of land largely donated by Quimby – would draw large numbers of tourists to an area struggling to recover from the closure of paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket. Opponents, however, argue that a national park would bring seasonal, lower-paying jobs and federal red tape that could hurt the forest products industry, interfere with snowmobiling, hunting or other traditional uses and squelch additional economic development.
The push to create a national park or monument in northern Maine took an odd twist last week when three members of Maine’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Obama expressing both “serious reservations and significant concerns” about a proposed monument designation. But in their letter to Obama, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Bruce Poliquin did not oppose the designation – although Poliquin, who represents the 2nd District, has done so himself – and laid out nine conditions the administration should include if it created a national monument.
The tone of the letter also contrasted sharply with one sent in late August by Gov. Paul LePage to delegation members in which he strongly opposes the proposal and adds that he has been “somewhat dismayed members of the Maine congressional delegation have yet to take a position on this matter.”
“Frankly, the more I come to learn about the National Monument process the more astounded I am,” LePage wrote to the delegation. “This law and the power it gives to the President is a complete abdication of Congressional authority by allowing the President unilaterally to declare land off limits. The potential for misuse of this power is concerning.”
SEVERAL NATIONAL PARKS STARTED OUT AS MONUMENTS
Whether the monument-to-park strategy is realistic for this particular parcel is open to debate. There are ample precedents, however.
Unlike national parks, which can only be created by an act of Congress, national monuments can be created with the stroke of the president’s pen. Congress passed the Antiquities Act of 1906 in order to give the president the ability to quickly protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on federally owned land.
Since 1906, presidents have used the act to protect 145 sites, ranging from the Statue of Liberty to hundreds of thousands of acres of Alaska wilderness.
President Wilson created Maine’s first and only national monument to date – Sieur de Monts National Monument – by proclamation on July 6, 1916, a month after George B. Dorr and others concerned about sprawling development around Bar Harbor donated the land to the federal government. Sieur de Monts National Monument was upgraded to Lafayette National Park – the first official national park in the East – three years later and was renamed Acadia National Park in 1929.
In fact, some of America’s best-known and most iconic national parks – including Grand Canyon, Grand Teton and Zion – all started as national monuments.
Obama has created 17 new national monuments and enlarged two others so far and is expected to name more during his remaining time in office, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Although nearly every president since Republican Teddy Roosevelt has used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate land as national monuments, Democratic administrations account for more of the 145 monuments than Republican ones.
“Monuments are a great option to preserve more land and maintain access for the public,” said Kristen Brengel, senior director for legislation and policy at the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit that advocates for strengthening and expanding the federal park system. “In terms of this administration, President Obama has done a great job looking at the national parks system and finding ways to diversify the system.”
Critics of Elliotsville Plantation’s plans for its land east of Baxter State Park don’t really care whether it would be a park or a monument; they’re opposed either way.
“It’s basically the same thing: it is going to be federal ownership,” said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.
Meyers’ group has steadfastly opposed the proposal based on snowmobilers’ turbulent relationships with the federal government elsewhere around the country. Snowmobile groups have spent millions of dollars trying to secure or defend access to trails in places such as Yellowstone National Park, and Maine sledders are concerned they could face similar fights here.
“The whole monument thing is an admission that their idea of a park has failed,” he said. “They can’t get anybody (from the delegation) to put in a bill … so they are saying, ‘We don’t care what you think, we’re going to do it anyway.’ ”
Earlier this year, voters in Medway and East Millinocket voted to oppose the national park proposal in nonbinding referendums.
But St. Clair pointed out that numerous chambers of commerce, business groups, newspaper editorial boards and local officials have endorsed the campaign, as he explains his family’s vision for the land.
“I don’t see that as a failure at all,” St. Clair said. “I see that as tremendous momentum. The opposition, frankly, is getting nervous.”
MARINE MONUMENTS ALSO UNDER CONSIDERATION
The White House declined to comment on the prospects for a North Woods national monument when contacted last week. However, there’s a decent chance that another patch of Maine wilderness – albeit underwater wilderness – could become the state’s only national monument before any decision is made on the Katahdin-area land.
Roughly 100 miles off the coast of southern Maine and New Hampshire is Cashes Ledge, a 500-square-mile area of submerged mountains and kelp forests that support some of the highest biological diversity in the Gulf of Maine. The area is already closed to commercial fishing because of the unique ecological conditions found there, including several species of whales, sharks and schools of oversized cod and other groundfish that have vanished from most New England waters.
A coalition of organizations – including the New England Aquarium, the Conservation Law Foundation and the National Geographic Society – have nominated Cashes Ledge to become the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. The organizations have held public meetings on the proposal and claim to have heard from more than 160,000 people supporting both the Cashes Ledge proposal and a proposed New England Canyons and Seamounts marine national monument off the coast of southern New England.
“It is one of the areas that is as close to untouched as we have in the Gulf of Maine,” Sean Mahoney, executive vice president with the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine, said of the Cashes Ledge site.
Opponents of the proposals, led by commercial fishermen and their trade groups, are urging the Obama administration to reject the proposals. By declaring marine national monuments, critics contend, the administration would shut down commercial fishing in areas of the Atlantic without going through the extensive public review process that the New England Fishery Management Council or state agencies would normally undertake.
During a September congressional hearing, Jon Williams of the Atlantic Red Crab Co. said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration held a “charade” meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, earlier that month because fishermen were being asked to respond to proposals with no specifics. Williams, whose Massachusetts company fishes the “New England Canyons and Seamounts” area, accused “a conglomerate of wealthy environmental activists” of trying to lock up large areas of ocean without public deliberation.
“As an industry that has worked tirelessly to serve as a model for sustainable fishing, we are not threatened by a public discussion of ocean conservation,” Williams told members of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, according to his written testimony. “Instead, it is the willingness of these environmental groups to ignore all public processes that we firmly stand against.”
Mahoney said his organization is “more than supportive of having whatever sort of public process the administration would like to have to address concerns that have been raised about the process.” But speaking about the Cashes Ledge proposal, Mahoney pointed out that as recently as this year the New England Fishery Management Council considered reopening parts of the area to groundfishing only to drop the idea after considerable public debate.
“That is a perfect example of what could happen again under the New England Fishery Management Council,” Mahoney said. “This provides permanent protection. A national monument (designation) takes the long view.”
STRATEGY CAN DISLODGE PROJECTS FROZEN IN CONGRESS
The Obama administration has also caught heat from some members of Congress – particularly Republicans and Western lawmakers – for his use of the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments.
In March 2014, the U.S. House voted 222-201 largely along party lines to pass a bill that would have required a more public review of some proposed national monuments and prevented presidents from designating more than one monument in each state during a four-year term without congressional approval. The bill went nowhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate, however.
Brengel, the National Parks Conservation Association staffer who has worked closely with St. Clair on the North Woods project, said sometimes a national monument designation is simply the forward momentum needed to dislodge a project frozen in Congress. As an example, Brengel said she and others worked for a decade to protect sites in Maryland that were important to Harriet Tubman, a key figure in the movement of slaves to free states along the Underground Railroad.
After years of inaction in Congress, Obama designated nearly 12,000 acres in Maryland as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in March 2013. A year and a half later, Congress agreed to designate the sites as national historic parks under the national park system.
“It’s absolutely a first step,” Brengel said of starting with a national monument designation. “I don’t think anybody looks at Grand Teton or Grand Canyon as a step back.”