When you think of large, alluring national parks, New England is not the region that usually leaps to mind. But President Obama has taken a step toward changing that. On Aug. 24, he designated an 87,500 acre tract of land, in the Mount Katahdin region of northern Maine, the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
Creating such a monument is virtually the same as establishing a new national park. This will be the largest such park in New England, topping the 47,000-acre Acadia National Park and the 44,600-acre Cape Cod National Seashore. Unlike those two well-known coastal parks, this new federally protected and managed area is an inland treasure. The new park, which comprises the forest, rivers, and peaks to the east of Baxter State Park, will add many more opportunities for campers, hikers, canoeist, kayakers, wildlife photographers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers.
It will serve as a worthy complement to Baxter State Park, helping make northern Maine, where economic high tides don’t often reach, a destination for a certain hardy type of wilderness lover. Indeed, the genesis of the new monument is rather like the history of Baxter State Park itself. Unable as governor (1921-’25) to persuade the Maine legislature to buy the land around Mount Katahdin for a park, Percival Baxter, upon leaving office, began buying large tracts and gifting it to the state. Similarly, the land for the new park was purchased and donated by Roxanne Quimby, cofounder of the Burt’s Bees personal-care products franchise, and a dedicated conservationist. She and her family have also donated $20 million to help get the park up and running and pledged another such donation in the future.
Obama’s move isn’t without controversy. Those who hope for a booming revival of the struggling Maine paper and forest-products industry are skeptical of the idea, because it takes all those acres of trees out of the potential harvesting mix and, they fear, will force up prices for other forestland.
But at least as far as the paper industry goes, those are mostly forlorn hopes. Maine’s paper mills have been victims of the digital revolution, which has lessened the need for paper for newsprint and magazines. That trend, it hardly need be said, is not about to stop. As for the rest of the industry, competition from abroad has hurt, but so too has a diminished market for wood chips and pellets. That decline is a result of low oil and natural gas prices, which have undercut biomass power generation and slackened demand for wood for home heat.
Further, since Quimby had already purchased the land and wanted it preserved, it’s not as though Obama’s action changes its no-logging status. It simply certifies that status for the long term. Although hunters and snowmobilers had been annoyed when Quimby closed her land to their activities, a compromise reopening of some acres for those pastimes has since been worked out and will continue now that the land is under federal management.
National parks are huge tourism draws, and a national monument is the next best thing to a national park designation. Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island, gets more than two millions visits a year, making it a top-10 national park, and creates about $250 million in annual economic impact. It’s worth noting that Acadia started its preserved status as a national monument.
Baxter State Park is already popular in Maine. The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument should help make this region of Maine a destination location for out-of-state national park and wilderness lovers. All of New England, but Maine in particular, should be grateful for Quimby’s generosity and Obama’s foresight.
But a word to the wilderness wise: If you come, don’t forget your bug spray.