Hope returns to the Katahdin region

By Liam Bond

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(Penobscot Ave in Millinocket)

WASHINGTON, D.C. ­- About three hours north up I-95 from the Maine-New Hampshire border at the Piscataqua River, the highway becomes lost in a sea of pine trees. The road straightens, the speed limit goes up to 75 miles-per-hour, and names for towns are replaced by letter-and-number codes.

Up there lies the east and west branches of the Penobscot River, of which the communities that line it grew from the logging industry, Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, and as of August 2016, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

You won’t see any signs for the monument on I-95, however.

That’s because Governor Paul LePage (R) is vedelaying the installation of signs for the monument along I-95 until the final word has come down from the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the White House regarding the future of the monument, which was included on the list of 27 national monuments reviewed by the DOI this past summer. The review, ordered by the Trump Administration in April, did not initially include the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, but LePage lobbied for the monument to be assessed as part of this process. The governor argued that a monument restricted the activity of private businesses on the land and hindered economic growth. His efforts, which have been vaguely resolved by the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s report, have kept the monument in limbo.

Yet despite the optimism following Zinke’s published report this past week, his firm stance on eliminating Katahdin Woods and Waters will only staunch the flow of newfound economic benefits and people that appreciate the outdoors that have flooded the Katahdin region, which has struggled since the decline of the paper industry.

Creation and Opposition to the Monument

The site of the old run down Great Northern Paper mill when you drive through East Millinocket on Route 11 puts into perspective the history of the Katahdin region.

Communities like Millinocket that lie along the east branch of the Penobscot River once thrived and prospered in the days of successful logging, but they’ve been hit hard and essentially been left on their own up in the Maine North Woods after repeated layoffs from mill closings like the Great Northern Paper mill.  With economic prosperity put on hold it seemed like the Katahdin region was stuck without an answer to break from the past.

That is, until Roxanne Quimby, the co-founder of Burt’s Bees, started purchasing land east of Baxter State Park and announced her plans to turn the area into a national park.

In August of 2016, after years of effort, the land was officially transferred to the federal government, and was proclaimed Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument by President Obama.

The distinction of Katahdin Woods and Waters as a national monument has ushered in a new wave of tourists and visitors as a result of its accessibility and  scenic viewing opportunities. The park differs from its neighboring park, Baxter State Park, in that when Baxter State Park was created in 1931, the idea behind the park was to keep the land “forever wild.” There are hardly any roads that cut through the park, and the sheer ruggedness of Mt. Katahdin highlights just how “forever wild” the park is.

In comparison, Katahdin Woods and Waters was created to be far more accessible. There are many “walking” trails rather than hiking trails that offer spectacular views of the surrounding land, and the roads are designed similar to the carriage roads in Acadia National Park.

“It really is special, as you drive through it, the ferns, the trees,” Dave Weatherbee, a guide for the New England Outdoor Center, said. “It’s northern jungle.”

Before the monument was created however, there were years of local debate about how to best move forward with a national monument or even national park.

(Weatherbee talks about why some Katahdin region residents were hesitant towards the creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters.)

Despite the initial hesitation towards federal intrusion in the North Woods, locals eventually came around to the idea of a national park or monument.

However, Maine politicians like Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, and especially LePage, opposed the creation of the monument intensely.

LePage sent a letter to President Trump in February calling for Trump to undo the designation of the land as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

“I am writing to ask for your assistance in rectifying a grave injustice that has been done to the people of Maine and our forest economy,” LePage wrote. “I strongly urge you to undo the designation and return the land to private ownership before economic damage occurs and traditional recreational pursuits are diminished.”

LePage has made his stance against the monument clear, saying that the monument has restricted the forest industry and people that wanted to use the land for recreational activities. LePage later went to Washington in May to testify before the House Committee on Natural Resources.

(LePage’s opening statement can be seen from 25:10 to 30:30)

“I just couldn’t get over the governor of the state of Maine going to Washington to lobby against the national monument,” Weatherbee said. “How can the governor of the state do that? He made a comment, something about a mosquito infested swamp up in Maine,” Weatherbee said.

New Economic Prosperity to the Katahdin Region

Residents like Weatherbee continue to speak up about the importance of the monuments, but LePage refuses to hear, these stories of how Katahdin Woods and Waters is bringing hope back to the people of Millinocket and the surrounding communities. Just by the numbers alone, visitor counts for the monument indicate the flood of new people coming up to the Katahdin region.

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“You hear businesses saying ‘this is the best year I’ve had in a long, long time,” Gail Fanjoy, past president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “There’s no other reason for it other than that [Katahdin Woods and Waters],” Fanjoy said.

Fanjoy added that stores are expanding their product lines to suit visitors that are driving up to Millinocket to see the monument.

“Just kind of anecdotally living here, you see, you know, out-of-state cars, and we’re not just talking New England,” Fanjoy said.

One business that has seen an especially good year is real estate.

“The national monument introduced this area to a lot of people, and that has translated into real estate sales that we otherwise would not have had,” Dan Corcoran, a real estate agent with North Woods Real Estate, said. “It was amazing to watch people who had been here for the first time only for a few days and already were in our office wanting to buy real estate,” Corcoran said.

Corcoran mentioned that North Woods Real Estate has seen about a 30 percent increase over the year before across residential, land, vacation homes and commercial.

“It was almost dead,” Corcoran said about commercial real estate. “Right after the announcement for the creation of a national monument, our phones started ringing.”

Not only have existing businesses been booming, but the monument has brought new businesses to the Katahdin region as well.

Steve Golieb and his girlfriend Ashley Wells opened Turn the Page Bookstore and Wine Bar this past July in Millinocket, converting an old logging restaurant into a bookstore with craft beer, wine and food.

“We really felt a sense of community, a lot of opportunity, and a very good cost of living,” Golieb said. “Also the closeness to recreation and the outdoors were really the main things that drew us personally and felt that the business would do well for the same reasons,” said Golieb, who mentioned that they were also seeing the benefits from people who were exclusively up there to see the monument.

Aside from their economic benefits, these new and refurbished stores have brought a physical breath of fresh air to Millinocket.

Among the boarded up and run down stores along Penobscot Avenue are refurbished and repurposed buildings. On one side of the street was a store called Designlab with words like branding, marketing and social media on the window and a sticker for Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters on the door. Across the street, Weatherbee was working in the New England Outdoor Center’s renovated store.

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(Designlab door, with a Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters sticker in the lower left corner)

Weatherbee makes a habit of pointing out the original ceiling in the store, which acts as a gift shop full of original artwork, local products and craft beer, and Katahdin Woods and Waters memorabilia, as well as a desk where visitors can make reservations for tours or campsites.

This new look for Millinocket embodies the good that has come from Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Where Katahdin Woods and Waters is Going

Early last week, the DOI officially published Zinke’s report. The report and Trump have already made headlines as Trump has aimed his efforts on reducing the size of Bear Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The report however did very little to elaborate on Katahdin Woods and Waters, yet did not call for size reduction or elimination.

“We’re cautiously optimistic I would say that the cloud is lifting,” said Andrew Bossie, executive director for Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, a nonprofit that works alongside the National Park Service. Despite positivity from Zinke’s report, Bossie said that the group will push forward carefully, and still has many questions about Zinke’s vague recommendations.

That doesn’t change the fact that the monument faces intense opposition by LePage, who was successful in putting the monument under review in the first place. He argues that the monument restricts logging companies from accessing the land places and restricts economic growth; yet this belief remains analogous to Trump’s claim to bring back coal mining jobs. Both men have focused their efforts in the past and have ignored other streams of revenue that could come from opening up the land to public visitors.

LePage is painting the Katahdin region as a place that desperately wants to hold on to blue-collar jobs on a national scale, much like West Virginia. Yet he’s ignoring the hope and prosperity brought to the small towns in northern Maine by the monument.

“It’s not very often that someone is willing to give you practically $100 million, which is what the Quimby family has done, to create a possible economic draw,” Bossie said. “I hope that anyone, no matter what you’re position was before the monument was created, what side you’re on, there’s space for people to change their minds,” Bossie said.

Maybe if LePage were to take a visit to the “mosquito area” and the beauty that is Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, he’d understand why it’s bringing so much hope and prosperity to the region.

That’s if he could find it.

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