AUGUSTA — House lawmakers gave initial approval Thursday to a bill aimed at thwarting attempts to create a national monument on land in the Katahdin region.

The bill states that the Legislature does not give consent to the federal government to acquire Maine land in order to create a national monument. While the state cannot prohibit federal officials from acquiring land, supporters said the bill would send a message to the Obama administration as it considers a potential monument in the Katahdin region.

“I know we can’t stop it, but I think we should go on record saying we are not in favor of a national monument,” said Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, sponsor of L.D. 1600.

The 77-71 vote followed more than an hour of debate over an issue that has deeply divided an area of Maine struggling to recover from the closure of two paper mills.

The Obama administration is considering a proposal from wealthy entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby to donate more than 70,000 acres that she owns east of Baxter State Park to create a national monument. Federal law allows presidents to designate national monuments without congressional approval, and the designation is needed to create a national park. Quimby’s nonprofit foundation, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., hopes the designation would be an interim step toward the creation of a North Woods national park.

MONUMENT SUPPORTERS TO PUSH BACK

However, the debate is not yet over. The bill faces an additional vote in the House before it heads to the Maine Senate for consideration – all opportunities for monument supporters to attempt to flip votes.

“It’s a preliminary vote, so I suspect there will be a lot of conversations over the next few days as advocates for a national park or national monument set the record straight,” said David Farmer, spokesman for Elliotsville Plantation Inc., which is run by Quimby’s son Lucas St. Clair. “There were a lot of things said during debate today that frankly weren’t true.”

As originally introduced by Stanley at the behest of Gov. Paul LePage, the pending bill sought to prevent the federal government from designating land as a national monument. The revised version debated Thursday in the House is largely a symbolic gesture that specifies that the Maine Legislature doesn’t give its consent to the federal government to acquire land for a monument.

During the debate, Stanley and other Millinocket-area representatives accused national monument proponents of ignoring the will of local residents.

Two local communities, East Millinocket and Medway, voted last year in local ballot questions to reject the national park proposal, amid concerns about the effects on the forest products industry and access to snowmobiling trails.

“Those people in Washington don’t care a twit about the people in Millinocket,” said Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington. “We need to send a message to Washington and to the president, in particular, that we know what is best for us.”

However, the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce and many other local residents have embraced the park or monument proposals as a way to draw visitors and spur economic development in the region.

Bill opponents questioned whether the measure would violate private property rights or violate the U.S. Constitution, although supporters countered that the amended version endorsed Thursday addressed those concerns. Opponents also warned that the measure could discourage the creation of any national monuments in the state, not just in the North Woods.

Rep. Mark Bryant, a Windham Democrat, called the bill “bad policy regardless of where you stand on the issue” of a national park or monument.

“It is not in our state’s economic or environmental interests to eliminate the possibility of creation of future national monuments in Maine,” Bryant said.

Quimby, who co-founded the Burt’s Bees personal care product line, had initially proposed donating land to create Maine’s second national park. But faced with continued opposition from some local residents and a leery congressional delegation, Quimby has pivoted toward gaining national monument status for the land as a park precursor.

And there are plenty of precedents for such a path. Some of America’s best-known and most iconic federal lands – including Grand Canyon, Grand Teton and Zion national parks – all started as national monuments. Even Acadia National Park began as Sieur de Monts National Monument.

MAINE DELEGATION MAKES CONCERNS KNOWN

With the Obama administration seriously considering Quimby’s offer, members of Maine’s congressional delegation have become more involved in the national monument discussion.

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, along with Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-District 2, sent a letter to Obama in November expressing “serious reservations and significant concerns” about a proposed monument designation. The delegation members did not oppose a designation – although Poliquin has done so himself – but laid out nine conditions the administration should include if it proceeded. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, supports a park or monument designation.

Last week, the Obama administration indicated that it was no longer considering designating a marine national monumentan area of the Gulf of Maine known as Cashes Ledge as a marine national monument. But the North Woods proposal apparently remains on the table.

King, an independent, sent a letter to National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis last Friday requesting that he return to the Katahdin region “to hear directly from the residents and to more specifically address their concerns, questions and ideas” about a potential monument.

On Thursday, Poliquin cheered the preliminary vote in the Maine House, saying it illustrated the bipartisan opposition to a monument designation and echoes the concerns raised by local residents.

“As I’ve said before, any process to incorporate federal land in Maine must have strong support from the local community,” Poliquin said in a written statement. “A unilateral designation of a national monument would not take into consideration any of the serious concerns of the Katahdin region residents and surrounding communities.”

The bill faces at least one more vote in the Maine House before going to the Senate for consideration.