AUGUSTA — Attorney General Janet Mills called the Trump administration’s review of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument “fundamentally flawed” and vowed Monday to “challenge any unlawful executive branch action” regarding the monument’s designation.

Mills commented on the same day that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended scaling back the controversial Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and two days before Zinke visits Maine to tour the Katahdin Woods monument. The Democratic attorney general’s statements supporting the 87,500-acre monument also puts her squarely at odds with Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who successfully lobbied the Trump administration to review the designation.

“We are prepared to challenge any unlawful executive branch action that purports to abolish or reduce the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument,” Mills wrote in comments submitted to the Department of the Interior as part of the review. “DOI should instead terminate its review of Katahdin Woods and Waters and reaffirm the agency’s commitment to making the monument work well for all people, particularly the residents of the Katahdin region who are now counting on it for their economic future.”

In late April, President Trump announced plans to review several dozen national monument designations made by presidents since 1996. The review applies to all monuments larger than 100,000 acres, but the order also allows Zinke to review smaller monuments when the secretary “determines that the designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.”

The executive branch has no authority to alter a monument designation, says Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. Staff photo by Joel Page

Katahdin Woods and Waters is the only national monument smaller than 100,000 acres to make the list, which is attributable to LePage’s high-profile lobbying for its inclusion. The Trump administration also is reviewing the designation of 3.1 million acres of ocean off the coast of New England as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument.

LePage’s office did not reply Monday to a request for comment on Mills’ statements.

The Interior Department is accepting public comments on Katahdin Woods and Waters and all other national monuments under review – with the exception of Bears Ears – through July 10.

In her official comments to Interior, Mills said the executive branch “has no authority to abolish or reduce” a monument designation under the Antiquities Act of 1906 allowing presidents to protect historically or scientifically significant land. She also questioned whether Zinke’s mind already was made up because Trump’s executive order allows reviews of monuments smaller than 100,000 acres “where the secretary determines” the review criteria were met.

Mount Katahdin is seen from Route 159 in Patten, bordering the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. President Trump’s move to review the designation has cast a pall over its immediate success. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“Therefore, the only basis under the executive order for the secretary to conduct a review of the Katahdin Woods and Waters designation is if he has already determined that it occurred ‘without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders,'” Mills wrote. “In other words, DOI’s notice invites comments on the very same question that the secretary was required to answer in the affirmative in order to initiate the review process. It is difficult to have confidence that public comments will receive serious and impartial consideration under these circumstances.”

Mills said there was “extensive” public outreach and coordination before President Obama’s August 2016 designation of the Katahdin-area monument. That designation followed years of public debate over conservationist Roxanne Quimby’s plans for the land she owned just east of Baxter State Park. Quimby’s nonprofit, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., donated the land to the federal government – along with a pledge of a $40 million endowment – in order to create the monument.

Supporters viewed the national monument as an economic blessing for a region struggling with the loss of paper mill jobs, but opponents feared a federal designation would stifle future industrial development or harm the region’s forest products industry. Since the designation, however, some former opponents have said it is time for the region to make the best of its new federal neighbor. And local towns are already seeing modest benefits in terms of increased tourist traffic, real estate sales and retail development.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said Congress should approve legislation granting tribes legal authority to “co-manage” some of the Bears Ears National Monument site, although he is recommending that the monument be scaled back in size. Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster

Zinke is likely to hear all of those viewpoints, and more, during a two-day visit to Maine this week.

He is expected to tour the monument Wednesday, following in the footsteps of his predecessor, former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who hiked and paddled in the monument immediately after the designation. Zinke also will meet with representatives of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, which supports the monument, as well as representatives of the Maine Woods Coalition group that opposed the designation. He also plans to meet privately with leaders of the Penobscot Nation.

In the first announcement related to the closely watched review process, Zinke recommended that Trump pursue a smaller footprint for Utah’s 1.5 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. Zinke said Bears Ears, which has dominated much of the national discussion of the monument review process, undeniably has historic, pre-historic or scientifically significant lands worthy of federal preservation in conjunction with local tribes. But he suggested that much of the monument’s land, while “drop-dead gorgeous,” does not rise to the level of requiring restrictive protection as a national monument.

Zinke suggested during a conference call with reporters Monday that he will be looking closely at whether other monuments meet the definition of historic, pre-historic or scientifically significant lands. He also will review whether monument designations meet the requirement of covering “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

In announcing his visit to Maine last week, Zinke said he was coming to the Katahdin region with an open mind.

“Many of our monuments are settled. Some are more controversial than others,” he said. “I don’t have any preconceived recommendations.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH