MILLINOCKET, Maine (AP) — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Thursday that federal ownership of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is "settled," and he may recommend an upgrade to a national park.
Zinke visited the 87,500 acres (35,410 hectares) of wilderness over two days as part of President Donald Trump's review of more than two dozen national monuments.
The former Montana congressman didn't share Maine Gov. Paul LePage's opinion that the land was unworthy of the federal designation. Instead, he described it as a "beautiful and special place" after touring the property, doing some hiking, and canoeing on a river.
At a chamber of commerce breakfast Thursday, Zinke went even further in suggesting that he might recommend that Congress elevate the land's status to a national park. That was the original goal of Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt's Bees, who purchased the land.
The governor has charged that federal ownership of the land will slow economic development in the region, in addition to questioning the land's beauty.
LePage did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
During the breakfast event, the 30-plus attendees were asked to stand if they supported the federal monument. Everyone stood.
Zinke visited the wilderness area adjacent to Baxter State Park, home to the state's tallest mountain, Katahdin, and first signaled on Wednesday he's inclined to keep it in public hands.
But he also suggested Wednesday, and again Thursday, that it could be opened to "traditional uses," such as timber harvesting, hunting and fishing.
Zinke said it important to make sure local stakeholders had a voice in then-President Barack Obama's creation of the monument last year. In addition to the chamber meeting, he spent time with leaders of the Penobscot Nation and a group that opposes the federal ownership.
Supporters were encouraged by Zinke's enthusiasm. And Lucas St. Clair, Quimby's son, said he appreciated that Zinke thanked the family for its gift to the American people.
"We're taking a big sigh of relief. We feel like the secretary was straightforward with his comment. He said it's an opportunity to create a national park. He said it's a worthy landscape," said St. Clair, who accompanied Zinke during his visit.