Opinions still split on tourism in Katahdin woods region
MILLINOCKET, Maine — It has been a cherished land for so long, the majestic Katahdin woods overlooking this old paper mill town, the streams and the East Branch Penobscot River, the trails and turns that provide sweeping views of the fabled Mount Katahdin.
Now the terrain is officially called the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument — protected by the National Park Service, under an executive order President Obama issued last week — and residents here responded with a bit of cautious optimism, a measured sense of hope that the lands will provide for their future, as they have in the past.
“The mills aren’t coming back, we have to have something,” said a reserved Jim Dicentes, a hunter, who never wanted change. He’s a lifelong resident who worked for 42 years in the Millinocket paper mill that his immigrant grandfather helped build.
His wife, Theresa, added, “We want to have a future for the town, yes, but with integrity. We don’t want too much change. We’re sort of a close-knit community.”
So goes the mixed reaction among residents since Obama established the 87,500-acre monument — on land donated by the family of Roxanne Quimby, the founder of Burt’s Bees — in recognition of last Thursday’s 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service.
Most seem to be supporters of the monument, and even those who opposed it seem resigned. The hope among them is that the years-long battle to preserve the land will not only protect the environment and the recreational use of the land, but also create a tourism industry in a town where any new industry is wanted and needed.
Dozens had flocked to the National Park Service’s new office here in the hours after it first opened last Thursday, and there was a small line of people outside before it opened Friday morning. The Dicenteses had gone by to obtain maps of the monument, which outlined where recreational uses such as hiking and hunting are allowed.
In many corners of Millinocket and nearby towns, the opposition is still clear. Large lime-green signs pronouncing “National Monument — No” dot farmlands along major roads off the highway, and they are plastered on businesses. In the Katahdin woods, by a bridge used for a scenic driving loop, a sign hangs declaring “This Bridge Owner Says NATIONAL PARK NO.”
Most locals oppose any federal intrusion in these Northern Maine lands, even through gifts by the Quimby family, or they long for the return of the state’s once-thriving forest industry.
A primary difference between a monument and a national park is that parks are created by an act of Congress. Obama created the monument by executive order, which served to further outrage opponents already concerned about federal intrusion.
After the president’s decision, Governor Paul LePage issued a scathing statement decrying Obama for taking “unilateral action against the will of the people, this time the citizens of rural Maine.”
“Despite this lack of support, the Quimby family used high-paid lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to go around the people of Maine and have President Obama use his authority to designate this area a National Monument,” the governor said. “This once again demonstrates that rich, out-of-state liberals can force their unpopular agenda on the Maine people against their will.”
Supporters who helped organize the campaign to create the monument said that polls show that a majority of local residents and businesses support the creation of the monument, and that most see the potential for a new tourism industry.
“Every designation is controversial. There are some local people who have feared they would lose access to this land. Some who have feared it would have an impact on forest products,” said Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
She added, though, that the area could see the same benefits of Acadia National Park, the 100-year-old park on the coast of Maine. Acadia is the only national park in New England, and it drew 2.8 million visitors last year. It is half the size of the monument established last week.
“It’s become an economic driver, and we expect this will be, too,” said Pohlmann. “From an environmental standpoint, it’s absolutely breathtaking — three rivers, mountains. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful part of the state, and I’m thrilled it will be protected forever.”
On Thursday, local residents — even if they were mixed about the creation of the monument, and Obama’s decision to do it without seeking congressional approval — said that the opposition seems to come only from a vocal minority.
“The people against it are the loudest, but if you took a poll, you’d find people are for it,” said Barry Davis, owner of Two Rivers Canoe and Tackle in Medway, who has watched the traffic on Route 157 plunge since the paper mills started closing.
Most locals, he said, accept that the mills are not returning, and that the region needs another industry, even if it is tourism. Vacant storefronts and “For Sale” signs litter the downtown.
Jim Charette, who owns a home with his wife and three kids in East Millinocket, hopes the establishment of the monument will bring back businesses and boost the economy. Until now, no one had a plan, he said.
“What can we do now, we have to make the best of it,” Charette said. “I don’t think it can negatively affect anyone.”
Jaime Renaud, owner of Appalachian Trail Café, one of only two breakfast spots in the area, said there would be “growing pains.”
But she believes the nearby towns should work to unite to create a true tourism area, with proper zoning and updated accommodations.
“I see it as a challenge for us, how to be a neighbor to the monument and a benefit for the park,” she said.
Christina Marts, a community organizer with the Park Service, said she plans a series of meetings the week of Sept. 12 to explain plans for the monument and solicit residents’ visions. Many locals, she said, feared that the monument would change the recreational uses that the private owners had allowed on the lands: hunting on the eastern side, as well as hiking, fishing and kayaking in the western parts. Marts said that will not change.
The Quimby family has committed $40 million to help with improvements and maintenance.
Much of the monument is still being organized — for example, markers and park signage still need to be hung. Scenic view spots — of Katahdin, and Baxter State Park — have been established, but they look like they are still under construction.
But the Park Service has created detailed maps of the area, including the trail to Barnard Mountain and the 16-mile Katahdin Loop, with views of the mountain named by local tribes as “The Great One.” Tourists can pull up along the side of the road and walk to the shores of the Penobscot River, where salmon have been particularly vibrant this year, or Orin Falls, a bathing spot just off the trail. The land, which has fossil evidence of coral reef and volcanic islands, is home to moose and whitetail deer, American marten, bobcat, bald eagle, and the threatened Canada lynx.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the monument over the weekend.
‘‘Now all will have an opportunity to experience the beauty and the bounty of the Maine woods,’’ Jewell said on Saturday.
Mary Blackstone, a retiree from Ellsworth who still works part time as a researcher, camped out by Sandbank Stream near the entrance to the Katahdin Loop Thursday night with her partner Jay Barnes, the only two humans around. As she prepared her sleeping bag and other gear, Blackstone recounted how she learned about the campaign for the monument in her garden club and signed a petition that was sent to Obama.
They had planned to camp out in the wilderness Thursday night to celebrate the National Park Service’s birthday, unaware that the president had been about to declare it a monument.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “There are challenges this place may face, but just to have it protected and open land can only be a good thing, and the public can have a say in what happens to it.”
She paused, to reflect on the river, and the forest. “Can you hear the silence?” she asked.