Maine Woods National Park idea faces challenges

AP News
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Posted: Apr 10, 2011 11:02 AM
Maine Woods National Park idea faces challenges

Judging by the reaction of Maine's congressional delegation, a wealthy conservationist has some convincing to do if she's to sell her idea of another national park in Maine.

While no one rejected Roxanne Quimby's idea outright, all four members of Maine's delegation expressed some level of concern about the proposal by the founder of Burt's Bees personal care products to turn over more than 70,000 remote acres to the National Park Service.

The Park Service finds the idea intriguing, especially since it thinks people in the Northeast have fewer parks than other areas of the country. The park's acreage would be roughly double the size of Maine's Acadia National Park, which draws more 2 million visitors a year.

But it's Congress that would have the final say. And the project wouldn't even make it out of the starting gate without support of the home-state delegation.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, said she's open to the park idea, as long as the needs of local residents and industries are taken into account. Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe both expressed misgivings about federal control of so much land in northern Maine.

Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat who grew up in Millinocket _ the town closest to the wooded acreage _ said he wants answers about the impact on communities and businesses before taking a position.

Quimby, who made roughly $350 million when she sold Burt's Bees, has been buying land for conservation for several years. Her idea of a Maine Woods National Park would utilize her vast acreage to the east of Baxter State Park, and would include a visitor center dedicated to Henry David Thoreau.

Acknowledging sportsmen's complaints about restrictions on the land, she would offer another 30,000 acres to be managed as a state park, with hunting and snowmobiling allowed.

Mark Leathers, Quimby's land manager in Maine, said he's been getting positive feedback, especially about the idea of a giveback to sportsmen in exchange for the national park.

And the Portland Press Herald threw its support behind Quimby's concept, saying that changing ownership of the North Woods means people can't count on continued recreational use. "People who complain that a national park would change the way land has been used miss the point. That's changing already," the newspaper said.

But there are still plenty of detractors.

"There's always going to be people that think national parks are great. This area is not one of them," said Gene Conlogue, town manager in Millinocket. The 4,500 residents in Millinocket are firmly against Quimby's idea because they fear government intrusion would outweigh any benefits, Conlogue said.

Maine has a long tradition of private ownership of the state's vast North Woods, a wilderness that's been managed as a "working forest" with logging operations that serve the state's paper mills. Traditionally, the vast acreage was made available to hunters, trappers, snowmobilers and ATV operators.

But Maine's paper industry has fallen on hard times, with mills being sold and land changing hands. There's no guarantee that new owners are going to preserve access to the land.

Quimby says a new national park would conserve land and create jobs and economic opportunities by drawing additional visitors to the region. That would more than offset the loss of property taxes on her vast acreage, about $300,000, most of which goes to the state, not local communities.

It's not a silver bullet for the economy of northern Maine, but it can help, she said.

"That one thing is not going to solve the problems but it could add to a mix of diverse and interesting solutions that, added up, could really make a difference," she said.

Quimby acknowledges that she has some obstacles to overcome. For starters, the creation of a national park requires congressional approval, and that won't happen without support of the Maine delegation.

As for the National Park Service, it's interested in Quimby's proposal but there are fiscal realities as well. For example, Congress authorized the purchase of the Ronald Reagan boyhood home in Illinois in 2002; 10 years later, the park service is still awaiting funding, said David Barna, spokesman for the National Park Service.

From the agency's perspective, there are different reasons for creating parks. Sometimes it's to preserve history, other times it's to preserve ecosystems.

Northern Maine remains an intriguing idea because there's some of both, and because it's home to one of the last true wildernesses. "It's hard to find a section of land that big that's still available," Barna said.

Critics around Millinocket don't want the federal government meddling in their affairs. Conlogue said Interior Department interference a decade ago scuttled needed improvements at Great Northern Paper, which operated a pair of mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket, linchpins of the local economy.

One of the two mills closed after Great Northern filed for bankruptcy. On Friday, the other mill shut down after a prospective buyer backed out of negotiations aimed at keeping both mills in operation.

Quimby said the example cited by Conlogue, which focused on Clean Air Act provisions aimed at protecting air quality at older parks like Acadia, wouldn't apply to a new park like the one she's proposing.

Nonetheless, many local residents fear federal regulations associated with a park would kill paper mills, and harm their way of life.

"We're not questioning Roxanne Quimby's rights to own private property and to do what it what she sees fit, but this area is solidly opposed to the national park," Conlogue said.