The woodlands of central Maine, long dominated by logging and papermaking, are in the midst of a painful shift. The mills have suffered decades of decline, a slow-motion economic collapse that has left workers jobless and communities adrift; in the old factory town of Millinocket, the unemployment rate is 17 percent. Timber firms are abandoning the state, selling off vast tracts of pine and spruce. The disruption raises the question of what should come next: a transition to a tourism-based economy, or an all-out effort to bring in new industries.
The greatest danger is that decisions about the future of Maine’s vast interior will be made by default, rather than according to any deliberate plan. Mainers have been arguing lately over two divisive proposals — the first to declare a part of the woods a national park, closing it off to development forever, and the second to allow a private group to build a toll highway through the area as a way to spur commerce. These visions, each pushed by private individuals who have stepped into a leadership vacuum, may prove difficult to reconcile.
Mainers need to make a conscious decision between the proposals — or to pursue a different course entirely. Yet the state hasn’t yet gone through the collective soul-searching that such an existential issue demands.
The proposed park forms the linchpin of a strategy that relies on the region’s rugged beauty to draw visitors to central Maine. New England has only one full-fledged national park, and the proposal would help right that imbalance by creating Maine Woods National Park. The founder of the natural beauty product company Burt’s Bees, Roxanne Quimby, has scooped up millions of dollars worth of land from departing timber companies, and wants to donate 70,000 acres of it for the park.
A national park would preserve the landscape. But turning the region into a kind of L.L. Bean theme park would be anathema to residents who yearn for the days of thriving paper mills and view tourism jobs as a poor substitute.
That’s where the proposed east-west highway comes in. Promoted by construction executive Peter Vigue, the $2 billion limited-access, 220-mile toll highway — to be built with private money — would link Quebec and New Brunswick, providing a quicker trip between the Canadian provinces. Vigue says it would also transform Maine’s economy, opening up trade links not just to Canada but to the Midwestern United States.
Perhaps inevitably, the park’s backers, fearing the environmental disruption, have come out against the proposal. Other obstacles to the plan are economic: There’s a reason that, for years, the federal government has steadfastly refused to build such a road through a sparsely populated area. Past studies have shown insufficient commercial demand for the route, and there is already a freight rail line that runs roughly parallel to it.
Vigue says the fact the road is privately funded will protect the state if it fails. Yet he’s already dipped into public coffers once: The group finagled a $300,000 loan from the state for a planning study earlier this year.
Yet even as supporters of the park and the road both push forward, residents of central Maine and their elected representatives needn’t rush into either plan. The wiser course would be to broaden the discussion, enlisting a deeper cross-section of Mainers in decisions about the woods in the heart of their state.