Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with the media after breakfast with the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce and Millinocket Town Council at Twin Pines Camps in Township 2, Range 8. During his Maine tour, Zinke made repeated statements about the beauty of the Katahdin region and people’s passion for the land. Staff photos by Gregory Rec

TOWNSHIP 2, RANGE 8 — The head of the Department of the Interior said Thursday that federal ownership of Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is “settled” and suggested transitioning to a national park was still a possibility.

Yet Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also touted opportunities for more public access and “traditional uses” – including timber harvesting – on the federal land, offering reasons for optimism to both monument supporters and opponents after his tour of the Katahdin region.

“I think the solutions should be made-in-Maine solutions, not made-in-Washington,” Zinke said Thursday morning outside Millinocket. “That means we have an opportunity to do something different here. You can harvest timber, you can hunt, you can respect traditional uses in the confines of a monument or a park. So we are looking at the appropriateness of a monument (versus) a park and looking at how would we do that.”

Zinke wrapped up a three-day visit to Maine by meeting in the morning with dozens of Katahdin-area business leaders who say the monument is already paying dividends, and then in the afternoon with some of its most vocal critics. The trip to Maine also featured meetings with Penobscot Nation leaders and Gov. Paul LePage as Zinke carries out an executive order from President Trump to review whether 27 national monuments across the country should be modified, shrunk or even potentially rescinded.

Gail Fanjoy, former president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, speaks at a breakfast Thursday with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke came to Maine for a review of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which the Obama administration established last year. Fanjoy said critics’ argument that the monument was designated without any public input is “preposterous.” At left is Lucas St. Clair, whose family donated the land for the monument to the National Park Service.

Zinke made repeated statements about the beauty of the 87,500-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters monument and the surrounding region, as well as people’s passion for the land.

“Overall, I would say it was a very positive experience, really good people, beautiful country with excellent potential to be something special,” Zinke said Thursday morning with Baxter State Park’s Mount Katahdin in the background.

CRITICS RESIGNED BUT ENCOURAGED

Longtime monument critics, while resigned to the fact that the federal government is here to stay in Maine’s North Woods, said they were encouraged by Zinke’s emphasis on traditional uses and less restrictive management of the monument.

“He wants access, he wants traditional recreation, he wants things to fit into the local community and he wants it to be a working forest,” Doug Denico, director of the Maine Forest Service, said after monument critics met with Zinke in Augusta. “He expects there to be some timber moving at some point. But he is also very respectful of the law.”

The communications staff for LePage, a strident opponent of the monument, declined to comment.

Legal experts and conservation groups are closely watching the Trump administration’s review of monuments nationwide. On Friday, Zinke plans to meet with fishermen opposed to President Barack Obama’s preservation of a 5,000-square-mile area off the coast of southern New England, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, second from left, speaks with members of the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce and the Millinocket Town Council during a breakfast Thursday at Twin Pines Camps. Longtime critics of the designation for the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument said they were encouraged by Zinke’s emphasis on traditional land uses and less restrictive management.

Obama created Katahdin Woods and Waters last August on land donated by conservationist Roxanne Quimby after a years-long debate over jobs, outdoor recreation and federal ownership in the Katahdin region.

Zinke’s Maine trip came one week after the former Montana congressman and Navy Seal recommended shrinking the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, an option he said would not make sense for Maine’s 87,500-acre monument.

Some opponents, including LePage, had hoped Trump would take the unprecedented step of trying to rescind a predecessor’s monument designation or hand over management to the state. But Zinke dismissed suggestions of transferring ownership or selling the land, saying Thursday that “I think the path, quite frankly, is settled.”

While Zinke said the primitive monument clearly needs additional infrastructure investments – such as on roads, bathrooms and cellular service – he also saw opportunities for the federal government to help grow both tourism and the region’s traditional forest-based industries.

“I think we should be helpful, we should be advocates for it,” Zinke told roughly 40 Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce members and others gathered at the New England Outdoor Center’s Twin Pine Camps.

NATIONAL PARK ONLY IF DELEGATION AGREES

However, Zinke surprised some by stating that switching from a national monument to a national park – the long-time goal of former owner Quimby – is an option, but only if such a proposal won support from Maine’s congressional delegation, which has been opposed to establishing a park.

Lucas St. Clair, who spent all of Wednesday driving, walking and canoeing the monument with Zinke, welcomed and actively encouraged the references to a Katahdin-area national park. St. Clair, who is Quimby’s son, called a North Woods national park “a very realistic option” even though his family switched its focus to a national monument after failing to win necessary congressional support for a park.

“I think the opportunity that Secretary Zinke has is he can talk to our congressional delegation and say, ‘What really needs to happen is congressional action here and we should turn this into a national park,’ ” St. Clair said. “If the secretary of the interior is putting pressure on our congressional delegation to create a park, that’s great in my mind.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with members of the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce and Millinocket town council during a breakfast at Twin Pines Lodge in Millinocket on Thursday.

The only current member to support a national park is U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican whose 2nd District includes the Katahdin region, has opposed park status, as has Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Sen. Angus King, an independent, became a vocal supporter for a national monument during the latter stages of the public input process that preceded Obama’s designation, but has opposed a full-fledged park in the past.

Zinke said a national park – with its broader purpose and multiple-use focus – was an option worth discussing with Maine’s delegation.

“The executive (branch) does not have that authority, so it would be unlikely to pursue that unless I have support from the congressional delegation,” Zinke told reporters afterward. Asked if it was possible he would recommend national park status for the land, Zinke replied “certainly,” but added, “I want to make sure my recommendations are in consultation with the representation of Maine.”

CONSDERING CHANGES, IMPROVEMENTS

Even if it stays a national monument, Zinke made clear he would likely recommend changes and improvements. The Katahdin region’s forest products industry had largely opposed the designation for fear of possible ramifications on an industry already struggling with two paper mill closures. Zinke, however, believes the monument could help the timber industry.

St. Clair was agreeable to the prospect of expanding the scope of the Katahdin-region monument to include limited, sustainable timber management.

“From a practical standpoint, if it is part of the interpretation of the cultural heritage of the region then we are OK with it,” St. Clair said. “This is not a monument that will be set up for industrial timber harvesting, and he and I recognize that will never be the objective of this resource.”

Snowmobiling and hunting are allowed within parts of Katahdin Woods and Waters, yet the limited access remains a sticking point among some. Snowmobilers said after the Augusta meeting that they were encouraged by Zinke’s focus on expanding such “traditional uses” on the federal lands. Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said he has seen a “180-degree” shift in dealing with those concerns between the Obama and Trump administrations.

“He is engaged, he knows what the issues are and now we need to decide the path moving forward,” Meyers said.

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

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