EAST MILLINOCKET — Two members of a congressional committee heard from opponents of a North Woods national monument on Wednesday afternoon during a field hearing that underscored the political tensions surrounding the proposal.

All five invited speakers during the 90-minute field hearing held by the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources – including Gov. Paul LePage – criticized the proposal to designate 87,500 acres of donated land east of Baxter State Park as a national monument. Although no supporters addressed the committee amid political dueling over how and when they were invited, dozens of monument supporters as well as opponents sounded off afterward during a lengthy public forum held by Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-District 2.

LePage said the “real threat” to the Katahdin-area lands is “from an ambitious, wealthy family seeking to create its own legacy.” LePage was referring to the family of Roxanne Quimby, the entrepreneur and conservationist whose nonprofit, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., is lobbying President Obama to accept the land donation for a monument.

“This a good case study for reforming the Antiquities Act,” LePage said, citing the federal law allowing presidents to designate national monuments. “The law should require some local or statewide support for a national monument designation. The way it stands now, there is really no way to (limit) the president’s power over the people who would be affected.”

Committee Chairman U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., visited the Katahdin region at the request of Poliquin, who opposes the national monument proposal. Their visit came two weeks after National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis heard hours of testimony on both sides of the issue during meetings that drew more than 1,200 people. Jarvis’ visit was organized by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who has yet to take a position on the issue.

The House committee’s role in the fate of the North Woods national monument is negligible, at least at this stage.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president unilateral authority to create national monuments to protect historically or ecologically significant land, although Congress can also make monument designations. National parks, by comparison, can only be created by Congress.

But as expected, Bishop used the venue to criticize a monument-designation process that he argues has strayed beyond the intent of the Antiquities Act. Bishop’s home state of Utah has a long history of land fights with the federal government, and he has sought unsuccessfully to rein in the president’s ability to create national monuments and increase Congress’ role.

Speaking at the start of the field hearing, Bishop said issues of access, forest management and roads need to be settled in writing before a federal designation happens or else risk years-long battles and uncertainties.

“People, from my personal experience, have been hit hard when a monument is done without the proper background and understanding of exactly what the impact will be,” Bishop said. “That’s why we want to make sure we do it this way, so that people have a chance to have some input.”

But the very way Wednesday’s hearing was held became a topic of debate, with monument proponents calling the proceedings “a sham.” House Democrats who sit on the committee, meanwhile, skipped an event they view as skewed against the North Woods national monument and the president.

“This is another in a long line of events the majority has held around the country in which they present a scripted narrative as public opinion,” said Adam Sarvana, spokesman for the Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee. “Chairman Bishop has made it clear he opposes the Antiquities Act and nothing said this week will change that. The outcome of the hearing is predetermined, and we’re not participating.”

Representatives of Elliotsville Plantation Inc. said they were not invited to speak to the committee by Bishop until after media reports highlighted the one-sided nature of the panel.

“Representative Bishop has made strong statements in opposition to the Antiquities Act and Congressman Poliquin clearly opposes” the national monument, David Farmer, spokesman for Elliotsville Plantation, said before Wednesday’s hearing. “They have worked together to put on a sham congressional hearing that is more about scoring political points for the congressman’s re-election.”

But both Bishop and Poliquin, who is seeking a second term this November, said the committee Republicans invited supporters to join the panel after it was clear that Democrats would not attend or invite witnesses.

“This is not a political issue for me,” Poliquin said. “This is about our families. This is about our jobs. This is about the people who live in the Katahdin region and the people of the state of Maine.”

The monument proposal has deeply divided the local communities and the state.

Supporters argue Quimby’s offer to donate 87,500 acres as well as set up a $40 million endowment for the property will bring tourists and economic development to a region struggling with the closure of two local paper mills. Supporters also hope monument designation would be the first step toward a national park, a path followed by Acadia, Grand Canyon and other national parks.

For evidence of the region’s economic troubles, one need only look across Main Street from the East Millinocket Town Office at the former Great Northern Paper mill sitting dark and empty. The mill and its sister facility – which is long gone – in Millinocket once employed more than 4,000 workers who earned some of the best manufacturing paychecks in the state.

But now the Katahdin region’s forest products industry is struggling to find new outlets for wood as some in the communities look to a national monument as a way to diversify the economy.

Opponents, however, fear giving the federal government a toehold in the region will lead to restrictions on outdoor recreation, such as snowmobiling and hunting, as well as additional regulatory burdens on the forestry industry or attempts to bring other manufacturing back to the region.

In addition to LePage, Bishop and Westerman heard from Bob Meyers with the Maine Snowmobile Association, David Trahan with Maine Sportsman’s Alliance, state Rep. Stephen Stanley of Medway and Millinocket councilor Paul Sannicandro.

Trahan accused Quimby of “squashing” the local culture by prohibiting hunting and snowmobiling on the land after she bought it. While some of that access has since been restored, Trahan said the “shared use” model in place on most lands is a much better model.

Sannicandro, who until earlier this year worked at neighboring Baxter State Park, questioned whether the region could even accommodate the crowds if 10 percent of Acadia National Park’s nearly 3 million annual visitors also visit a North Woods monument, as some have predicted.

Sannicandro also pointed out that what he believes is the best asset of Quimby’s land – the East Branch of the Penobscot River – is already permanently protected through conservation easements while Mount Katahdin is permanently preserved as part of Baxter State Park.

That prompted Bishop to speculate about the benefits of having a North Woods monument or park.

“It seems to me that if this was to go to the point of having it become a national park, the main purpose would be a park that is established to look at a state park,” Bishop said.

Jarvis said during his visit to Maine last month that no decision has been made on Quimby’s proposal, but he also said on several occasions that in his opinion the land was “absolutely worthy” of inclusion in the national parks system.

The two sides on the issue were better represented during an hours-long public forum held by Poliquin after the congressional field hearing adjourned.

The audience was filled with people wearing “National Monument, Yes!” T-shirts as well as opponents wearing Maine Woods Coalition shirts for the organization opposing the monument proposal.

Later in the evening, LePage held a town hall-style forum in Millinocket where he hit many of his usual themes of lowering taxes and energy prices. He also criticized referendum initiatives on this November’s ballot to increase Maine’s minimum wage, increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for K-12 funding and to institute “ranked choice voting.”

On the national monument issue, LePage predicted a designation will not bring substantial sums of federal money or tourists.

“Beware of the federal government,” LePage told roughly 70 people. “Beware of all of the promises.”

But Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son and the chief monument proponent on behalf of Elliotsville Plantation Inc., said Poliquin has been “uninterested in hearing the details” and declined numerous invitations to visit the property.

“The economy in rural Maine is hurting. Rep. Poliquin doesn’t have the answers,” St. Clair said in a statement. “Instead, he opposes, without a good reason, a plan to invest $100 million in the Katahdin region and create hundreds of jobs.”

 


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