Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Wednesday that he does not envision reducing the size of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, but he stopped short of reaffirming the land’s monument status.

“If this is an indicator, I’d be pretty happy,” Zinke said while taking a lunch break at an overlook of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak. “But we’ll look at it. I’m not going to make a decision until we go through it.”

During a daylong tour in summer-like but buggy Maine weather, Zinke drove, walked and paddled sections of the 87,500-acre monument in Maine’s Katahdin region as part of a controversial Trump administration review of several dozen national monuments nationwide. Katahdin Woods and Waters was included in the review at the behest of fierce monument opponent Gov. Paul LePage, reigniting a debate over jobs, tourism and federal ownership of land in Maine’s North Woods.

Zinke called Katahdin Woods and Waters “beautiful country” and suggested he was comfortable with the land remaining in public hands. He also said he was “not an advocate for sale or transfer of public land,” appearing to quash a LePage suggestion that the land come under state management.

While Zinke said he was not prepared to make a recommendation on the status of Katahdin Woods and Waters, President Trump’s top public lands official said he was “confident there’s a path forward here.”

“I’m an optimist,” Zinke said. “From what I hear I think all sides love the land, everyone appreciates public access and everyone appreciates that jobs matter. And who cannot say this is a beautiful site.”

Designated by President Barack Obama last August, Katahdin Woods and Waters just east of Baxter State Park offers hiking, fishing, paddling, wildlife watching, and hunting and snowmobiling in designated areas. The land was donated to the federal government last year by Roxanne Quimby, the entrepreneur and conservationist who has long aimed to created a national park in Maine’s North Woods.

The Quimby family’s donation included a pledged endowment of $40 million, but the property remains primitive nearly a year after opening, with rough roads, scattered bathrooms and limited signage because the LePage administration has refused to erect road signs.

NOT INCLINED TO SCALE BACK SITE

The Katahdin-area monument is among more than two dozen under review for possible changes by the Department of Interior. Some national monument opponents are even hoping Trump will make an unprecedented attempt to rescind an earlier president’s monument designations, a move guaranteed to ignite legal challenges from conservation groups.

Last week, Zinke recommended shrinking the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, a 1.3 million-acre tract that has been at the heart of the national monument debate since Obama’s designation of the land last year.

Speaking Wednesday to reporters with Baxter State Park’s iconic Mount Katahdin as a backdrop, Zinke suggested he wouldn’t likely go down that road with Maine’s 87,500-acre national monument.

Noting the size of Bears Ears, Zinke said that “is a little bit bigger than the scope of here. So scaling back, I don’t think makes a lot of sense for here.”

Wednesday’s tour was organized with the help of Lucas St. Clair, the chief advocate for the monument and also Quimby’s son. St. Clair guided Zinke alongside monument superintendent Tim Hudson – even steering Zinke’s canoe during a several-mile paddle – and helped to arrange meetings with several people involved in the monument.

Among those was Millinocket businessman Matt Polstein, who showed the interior secretary a new outdoor education center being built just outside of the monument by the Butler Foundation. A vocal monument advocate, Polstein said the Butler Foundation as well as his company, New England Outdoor Center, are investing heavily in the area because of the monument.

“We’re thrilled to be doing it, but we are a little anxious about your review,” Polstein told Zinke. “Because obviously if something changes in terms of the context of the monument, that would not impact us here in a positive way in terms of the branding, the draw the monument brings to this area and the resources it adds.”

OPINIONS FROM MONUMENT VISITORS

The interior secretary also crossed paths with people visiting the monument as his convoy bounced down the few rocky and pock-marked dirt roads that traverse its southern end. Some of those meetings were happenstance, like when hikers Allison Hill and Hannah Berman suddenly found themselves facing a line of pickup trucks and SUVs on a rutted road normally closed to vehicles.

They initially feared they were somehow in trouble when Zinke’s SUV stopped alongside them. But the college-aged pair were still giddy a half-hour later about having the nation’s top public lands official ask their opinions. They were impressed by both the monument and Zinke’s visit.

“We’re just trying to explore Maine,” said Hill, a Brunswick resident. “We have never been here. It was on our bucket list” for the summer.

Others timed their trip to the Katahdin area to coincide with Zinke’s visit.

Hiking guide writer Ryan Linn and couple Kelly and Josh Corbin had been enjoying a cool, quiet moment on the rocks near Orrin Falls of Wassataquoik Stream when the horde arrived. The three had heard Zinke was coming and decided it was a good time to head north.

On their first visit to Katahdin Woods and Waters, the Corbins called the monument “amazing” and urged its preservation. Kelly Corbin added that its presence in Maine will be a draw, just as it drew the couple Wednesday.

“There was so much conversation about the monument,” Kelly Corbin said. “We often go to New Hampshire to go hiking … but we decided it was time to take the trip.”

Linn said his message was simple: Keep the monument.

“It’s working for the local communities and it is working well for people who love the land up here,” said Linn, of Portland. “It’s a very different place than Baxter State Park. I’m very curious to see what it’s like in 40 years.”

OPPOSITION TO NATIONAL PARK

Birder Lance Benner was taking pictures and audio recordings when Zinke’s convoy showed up.

“It’s off to a good start, but they need more infrastructure,” said Benner, a Waterville native who now lives in California. “I don’t see any problems and, quite frankly, this area needs economic help.”

But lingering opposition to the monument also was clear numerous times Wednesday as Zinke’s convoy passed houses with “National Park NO!” signs. One bridge on a private logging road that provides the only access to the southern end of the monument carries a sign reading, “This bridge owner says, ‘National Park NO!'”

On Tuesday, the interior secretary had a dinner meeting with LePage in Augusta, where the governor apparently outlined his concerns about the monument’s impacts on the forest products industry and new industrial development.

On Thursday, Zinke will hear additional varied views. He is scheduled to meet in the morning with monument supporters from the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, and in the afternoon with opponents who are part of the Maine Woods Coalition. Zinke also will meet with leaders of the Penobscot Nation.

The Department of the Interior is accepting public comment on the Katahdin Woods and Waters monument designation process through July 10.

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

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