Saturday, June 4, 2016

Attitudes about public land on both sides of the Mississippi (Part II): A new national park in Maine?

I wrote this post yesterday reflecting on the lack of empathy most non-Westerners feel for ranchers who must negotiate land use rights with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.   I suggested that some of the coastal folks who are so focused on wildlife, wilderness and conservation (all of which I personally support, btw)--who tout the desirability of public land--might not be feel that way if their land (or their proverbial backyards) were at stake.  The proposal of Burt's Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby to donate 87,500 acres in Maine's Katahdin region (excluding Baxter State Park, which includes Mt. Katahdin itself) to the federal government so that it can become a national park or national monument provides an opportunity to "test" my hypothesis.  Quimby and her son, Lucas St. Clair, are offering not only a huge chunk of "Maine's pristine North Woods," they are also offering a $40 million endowment.  Here's an excerpt from Brady Dennis's story in the Washington Post about 10 days ago.
[I]t’s not easy to give away a national park; Roxanne Quimby, the wealthy, polarizing co-founder of Burt’s Bees, has been trying for more than a decade. Her effort has bitterly divided this corner of New England, where shuttered paper mills have led to crippling unemployment and a shrinking population, and where distrust of the federal government runs as deep as the rivers and streams. 
“We don’t need you here!” one man at a packed public meeting last week shouted at National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

“You really, truly don’t care what these people think!” another man fumed.
Dennis then explicitly contrasts the Maine situation with that in the Western United States:  
The emotion isn’t surprising. Out West, ranchers and farmers have long complained of federal encroachment on private land. But the fight over the Maine woods involves a private landowner wanting to hand over property, along with an unprecedented amount of funding. A century ago, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. tried a similar approach to create the first national park east of the Mississippi — Acadia National Park on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. History has been slow to repeat itself. 
In a single day last week, on a swing that included the angry crowd in East Millinocket, a more supportive crowd at a university auditorium in Orono and a couple of other stops, Jarvis got both slammed and supported. 
He heard what a great idea the proposed national park would be — and what a terrible idea. He heard the government hailed as a potential savior for the area’s economy — and as a land-grabbing force that could harm the timber industry and destroy a way of life.
Dennis quotes Millinocket resident Lorri Haskell,
How many times do we have to say, ‘No, it’s not what we want for the area?’ ...  It has nothing to do with us anymore.  ...  It has to do with whether President Obama is going to betray us. Is this how democracy works?
A 2014 New York Times story provides more perspective from area residents:
Beyond the years of resentment toward Ms. Quimby for closing her lands, there is a towering distrust here of the federal government. Many residents worry, contrary to Mr. St. Clair’s assurances, that the government would seize control of local decision making, take over even more land, ban hunting and snowmobiling, and ruin the forest products industry by restricting air emissions from the mills and limiting the timber supply. 
The story, by Katherine Seeleye, quotes Mark Marston, a selectman in East Millinocket and vice chair of the Maine Woods Coalition:
If a park comes in, it would shut the mills.  People in Millinocket don’t make what they used to, but at least they’re working, which is better than seasonal jobs at a park. 
Marston also expressed skepticism that the woods would be attractive to tourists.

Others, however, acknowledge that it's time for a different future for the area because the paper mills that formerly kept residents employed no longer play that role--and cannot reasonably be expected to do so in a robust fashion ever again.  A Wilderness Society webpage promoting the national park estimates it would bring more than a thousand ecotourism jobs to the area.  (Other interesting fact:  visitors to national parks spent $16.9 billion in nearby communities in 2015).   A photo documentation project/website supporting the national park designation puts the area's size in perspective--in relation to the West, no less:
Maine's Great North Woods that still survives as the greatest undeveloped and unprotected region east of the Rockies and once stretched continuously from Maine to Minnesota. The proposed Maine Woods National Park would encompass an area larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined.
It is not clear that these events in Maine support my hypothesis of a rough East-West divide when it comes to public land vs. private land because the Wilderness Society webpage states that 67% of Second Congressional District voters in Maine--the area which includes the proposed park--support the National Park designation.  Would those be the same folks supporting the preservation of public lands out West?  or are they primarily motivated by the economic opportunity the national park designation might bring?  

Further, that two-thirds majority in support of the park would seem to be relatively silent because  news accounts this past week suggest that the proposed park is a political football being used by Governor LePage and a Maine congressman, as detailed in the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer and other sources.  Apparently, those politicians oppose the national park designation (as did U.S. Senator Susan Collins as of 2014, according to the New York Times story).   The article in the Reformer, by David Sharp of the Associated Press, quotes David Farmer, spokesperson for the foundation making the proposal, who called the hearing this week "a sham."  
They've stacked the deck here.  It's a political show. It's more about [Congressman] Bruce Poliquin's re-election and Paul LePage's ego instead of good public policy. 
I remain convinced that the there is some East-West divide when it comes to public land, though I'm open to the possibility that it's an urban-rural divide instead. Send me your evidence of either proposition. Meanwhile, read more coverage of these events here (Boston Globe, 2013).

I'll close with this evocative description from another reporter covering the dispute, commenting that he "had been lulled into bliss by the last great wilderness in the eastern United States." 

1 comment:

Loka Ashwood said...

Lisa, thank you for this thoughtful commentary. Karl Jacoby has done great work on this history in Crimes Against Nature. There, local, and often poor, people were dispossessed of their land and lost their traditional hunting/food source in the case of Yellowstone. In many senses, this is not far afield from enclosure movements historically in England. When the acts are levied upon the rural poor, many progressives (often in urban contexts) take them as backward for pushing back because of the ways that these protests can align with radical right rhetoric. Scholars can recognize this historically, but still struggle to as it unfolds in modern times.