By Liam Bond
(Location of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and the communities to the east.)
For many, working class America represents an ideal: work hard and put in your hours, and you can live a comfortable life. But as the United States and the World continue to progress, many of the working class are left behind. Factories, mills and other manufacturing plants close and the jobs are lost.
In northern Maine, the small mill and manufacturing towns that line the Penobscot River face an uncertain future. In August of 2016, President Obama proclaimed the land lying between Baxter State Park and the communities along the Penobscot River Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
(Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in green. Courtesy of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters.)
Despite existing as a national monument for just over a year, the future of Katahdin Woods and Waters is unclear and the communities that surround it may see further decline. In late-September, the Washington Post published an internal report from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to the White House detailing his review of national monuments this past summer. The report included that President Trump use his authority to “promote a healthy forest through active timber management” and reopen the land for traditional uses like hunting, fishing and snowmobiling at Katahdin Woods and Waters.
“Unfortunately it [the report] got leaked and it still doesn’t answer a whole lot questions for us, in regards of the future of the monument,” Andrew Bossie, acting executive director for Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, said. “We are cautiously optimistic that what has happened, what has been donated for people to enjoy will continue to stay that way.”
Although groups like Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters support leaving the monument unchanged, the creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters in the first place was controversial among Maine politicians, notably Gov. Paul LePage and Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District. They felt that restricting the land from logging took away from Mainers who depend on the logging industry, which has historically supported people within the region.
“To understand the situation in Northern Maine, I think you really have to understand the history of Northern Maine,” Bossie said. “The paper mills were a huge part of these towns, for generations, really.” As the paper mills, which exist hand in hand with the logging industry, continue to shut down, with five of them closing since 2014, the way that people have interacted with the land has changed.
When Roxanne Quimby, the co-founder of Burt’s Bees who had been purchasing land in the region announced in 2011 that she wished to create a national park, the news was met with mixed reactions from locals who relied on the land for traditional activities like snowmobiling, hunting and fishing.
“In that [creating a national park] process, mistakes were made,” Bossie said. “Feelings were hurt of local folks that were already bruised by a difficult economic situation,” continued Bossie. “Different people feared different things that were happening in this change that was happening in the community.”
Compromises were eventually made that both designated Katahdin Woods and Waters as a national monument rather than a national park and allowed for traditional activities in certain areas of the monument. However access to those activities within Katahdin Woods and Waters is limited to certain parts of the land, which is part of the reason why so many people are still upset with monument’s creation.
Despite nothing but a rocky history for the monument, the leaked Washington Post report has been anything but beneficial for the people of Northern Maine, says Bossie. Increased traffic to the area from people who visit the monument has actually lead to people in the region expanding their businesses. Several motels in the region have been purchased with plans for redesign, and lodges and campgrounds have seen increases in reservations, which has given hope back to the region that has seen so much economic decline from the closing of the paper mills.
Bossie, who grew up north of the monument in Caribou, felt that “it’s quite frankly cool, as someone who grew up in these communities, to see that hope come back.”
However, the uncertain future of the monument leaves Bossie and Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters worried. “This uncertainty, quite frankly, is holding some folks back,” Bossie said. “People don’t know if they should invest in their community or start that small business.”
Despite the ambiguity surrounding Katahdin Woods and Waters because of the leaked Zinke report, groups like Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters feel that moving forward will result in the best outcome for the people of Northern Maine.
“I hope for something that we can all agree is a good thing,” Bossie said. “This river that runs through the middle of the monument was the first ever river that I paddled on,” Bossie said. “The mountains that you can see from Katahdin Woods and Waters were the first I ever hiked.”
Even more so however, Bossie wants to see hope return to the communities along the Penobscot River near the monument. “In one year, two years, three years, five years, 10 years, 20, I wanna see vibrant communities with good principles and values, celebrating the land and the wonder that is our outdoors, for generations to come.”