As someone who spent many happy hours as a kid stomping through the woods in parts of Maine hit hard by the decades-long cratering of the timber industry, I reacted with excitement to President Barack Obama’s announcement setting aside 87,500 acres near Baxter State Park as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
I was less excited by the ensuing news coverage, much of which focused on the predictably negative reactions from Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, both Republicans.
While Collins objected to the lack of congressional or voter approval and questioned who would pay for the upkeep, LePage’s reply was typical and crude.
“That’s one way to get out of paying taxes to the state of Maine,” LePage said. “It’s also an ego play for Roxanne Quimby and Sen. Angus King. It’s sad that rich, out-of-state liberals can team up with President Obama to force a national monument on rural Mainers who do not want it.”
Roxanne Quimby moved to Maine in 1975 from Massachusetts, and in 1984 began selling candles made from her husband’s beeswax. The company that became Burt’s Bees grew, helping to make Quimby wealthy.
Her donation of the land to federal government included a $40 million endowment to fund maintenance.
Though born in Virginia, King, an Independent, has spent most his adult life in Maine, where he served as governor before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012.
Collins once called King “fiscally conservative but very liberal on social issues” and “a good governor.”
Though a former Mainiac myself — a designation used for residents not born in the state, as opposed to born-and-raised Mainers — I have to think the more than 70 collective years that King and Quimby have lived in Maine should count for something.
The fine people of Maine duly elected Tea Party favorite LePage not once but twice to the highest office in the state, though in both instances the majority of Mainers voted for other candidates.
LePage has used his pulpit to bully many, but has saved some of his most heated vitriol for Obama, once supposedly saying “Obama Hates White People.”
He later denied making the statement.
Just last week LePage said he wished he could shoot a Democratic state legislator in a duel after the man allegedly called the governor a racist — a charge denied by the legislator.
LePage had drawn criticism for saying at a recent town hall that more than 90 percent of drug dealers arrested in Maine are black or Hispanic. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine fired back.
“White people are statistically more likely to sell drugs than black people, yet according to the governor police in Maine are nine times more likely to arrest black people for doing so. We don’t know what’s behind this disparity, but we look forward to working with the governor to end any unconstitutional racial profiling that may be occurring,” the organization said.
The governor eventually apologized “to the people of the state of Maine for having heard the voice mail,” but defended his comments and again accused the legislator of calling him a racist. And on Wednesday LePage demanded an apology from the reporter involved in the dust-up and swore he’d never speak to the press again.
The situation has prompted multiple calls from lawmakers for LePage to resign. He seemed to entertain that idea Tuesday morning, then hours later insisted he wouldn’t resign.
Some have questioned the governor’s mental stability.
LePage has, in the past, compared his style to that of Donald Trump, boasting, “I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular, so I think I should support him since we’re of the same cloth.”
But LePage also recently said that Trump was his third choice for president, after Chris Christie and Jeb Bush.
This column is not supposed to be about the sad but predictable reaction over Maine’s new national monument from LePage and his ilk, who seem to cling to the hope that plentiful jobs in forestry will somehow return.
But if the events of the past few decades are any indication, those jobs will not return in a number substantial enough to alleviate the crushing poverty of many parts of rural Maine.
Even when the timber is cut, the market for it is drying up, according to a family member in the industry.
And not all officials opposed Obama’s declaration.
Democratic Rep. Cherrie Pingree said the “creation of a new national monument will bring economic development to the area and benefit all of Maine.”
Fellow representative Bruce Poliquin, whose district covers the regions affected by the decision, noted that while locals had voted against the move in referendums, “there is a deep need for the people of our state to feel hope that someone or something is going to help our economy, regardless of where that help comes from.”
The Republican congressman said he would work to move the project forward in a way that would create good-paying jobs in the region.
Sen. King, who shares many of Poliquin’s concerns, concluded that “the benefits of the designation will far outweigh any detriment and — on balance — will be a significant benefit.” King also noted that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell had mentioned hiking, canoeing, fishing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing when making the announcement.
The Maine chapter of the Sierra Club said in a statement that “this historic victory is the culmination of decades of hard work to protect special places in the Maine Woods.”
According to the National Resources Council of Maine, “We can think of no better way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service than with the addition of the wonderful Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.”
I happened to be visiting family in Maine when Obama made the announcement, and the reaction from residents was more positive than the news coverage would lead one to expect.
One native, a former owner of a hiker’s hostel near the Appalachian Trail deep in the North Woods, talked of the many bustling national monuments she had visited on a recent trip to Arizona — many of which charged for entry and did swift trade at well-stocked gift shops.
A family member who has lived in the state for decades said Quimby “gave a great gift to the people of Maine.”
A brother-in-law who works part of the year in the logging industry said he was happy to hear the monument would preserve traditional land uses including hunting, hiking and fishing.
Yet another Mainer told this bureau chief that something had to give. The forestry jobs are not coming back, she said, and the area becomes more economically depressed every year.
None of the people I talked to thinks the national monument will suddenly solve rural Maine’s economic problems, and tourism brings its own issues.
I used to look forward to going to Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County, California, a short drive from my house.
The area has become so popular that on my last trip we had to park more than a mile away from the entrance and walk the rest of the way. The chatty mass of people within the monument made the going slow, and it tarnished what used to be a therapeutic experience.
On a recent trip to the Moxie Falls Scenic Area in Maine’s North Woods, our quiet enjoyment was disrupted by a large group of rowdy teenagers. While I hoped their chaperones would quell the racket, when they arrived one of the adults acted as irresponsibly at the youngsters.
Returning to the car after our hike, I mentioned to our group — which included my two young nieces, respectful nature-lovers both — that perhaps all hiking trails should have “Quiet: Trees at Work” signs like I saw on a trail on Maui a while back.
The remoteness of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument — a more than four-hour drive from the state’s southern border — might prove a benefit and a hindrance, both assuring the monument will not be overrun like Muir Woods while limiting the influx of tourist money.
And comments of two other Mainers linger in my memory.
One of them, an acquaintance from my youth who suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq, commented on Facebook that he doesn’t understand why people have such a problem with Quimby’s gift.
It was her property, after all. He suggested the people who don’t like the move should buy 87,500 acres of their own and do with it what they please.
A few days after the announcement, I walked into a gas station near the new monument where the cashier was in the middle of a discussion with a customer.
“Oh, they’re thinking about the forestry jobs,” the cashier said. “But really, we’re talking about only 87,000 acres out of how many millions in this state?”
The day after the announcement, the federal government opened an office in Millinocket. Despite opposition from many locals in the town close to the monument, the feds hope to build community relations and convince skeptics that the monument might just be a boon. And initial reports indicate that many curious locals have been very welcoming.
Curious, perhaps skeptical, but in the end welcoming.
That’s that Maine I know and love.
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