MILLINOCKET, Maine — This mill town needs something to happen.
That’s a sentiment with which everyone in struggling Millinocket agrees. What that should be, though, is a source of division. A vote scheduled next month will help reveal how the public feels about whether creating a new national park — informally called North Woods, since name is yet to be decided — is that elusive something.
For the better part of a century, the town’s fortunes were tied to the now shuttered Great Northern Paper Co., which in turn relied on the newspaper industry. When newspapers began reeling from increasing online competition, the paper companies suffered. Great Northern’s sagging fortunes also dragged down the neighboring twin town, East Millinocket, where unemployment rates were just shy of 20 percent as recently as June 2014; Millinocket’s held at 15 percent, still far above the state’s 6.5 percent.
For some, the long-percolating plan for a park will provide much-needed economic balm to an area still reeling from mill closings. The last mill closed in East Millinocket in 2011, and the Millinocket mill shuttered for good in 2008. But others see it as an opportunistic government land grab or as an attack on their right to use the landscape for hunting and recreation.
“We need something here, but I’m not sure if we need a national park,” said Luke Doane, who owns the Bridge eatery in Medway, just outside East Millinocket.
The proposed park would adjoin the long-established Baxter State Park, home to Mount Katahdin, which at 5,269 feet is the highest peak in the state and the northern terminus of the famed Appalachian Trail. Despite the peak’s dramatic beauty, it’s not a big tourist draw, comparatively speaking. According to the most recent Baxter State Park annual report, there were 63,474 visitors in 2013. National Park status for the area surrounding Katahdin would change that, according to park supporters. By comparison, Acadia National Park, just three hours away, draws 2 million visitors a year.
“Baxter State Park offers a backwoods type of experience … A national park would open up the beauty of this region to people who are more comfortable staying in a hotel, driving a loop road, taking a picture of a moose, visiting a museum,” said David Farmer, a spokesman for Elliotsville Plantation, the foundation that owns the land and proposed creating the national park.
The current park plan consists of 75,000 acres of pristine forests and foothills, with up to 75,000 additional acres set aside as a national recreation area, where hunting and fishing would be allowed.
‘Baxter State Park offers a backwoods type of experience … A national park would open up the beauty of this region to people who are more comfortable staying in a hotel, driving a loop road, taking a picture of a moose, visiting a museum.’
spokesperson, Elliotsville Plantation
But it has been a long and controversial road to get to this moment. The plans for North Woods began grandiose. Roxanne Quimby, a co-founder of Burt’s Bees beauty products, began buying land from timber companies over 15 years ago, with the intent of gifting it to the federal government. The original plan called for a 3.2 million acre park, larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined.
Many locals cried foul, and the idea was shelved. Plans were then floated for a much smaller park in 2011, in an effort led by Quimby’s son, Lucas St. Clair.
Farmer said supporters of the park now envision a tourism corridor connecting Maine’s popular Acadia National Park with the proposed North Woods. “We want to bring the Acadia tourism inland and create a corridor that will help the whole region,” he said. According to a peer-reviewed National Park Service study, Acadia generates some $271 million annually in economic benefit and supports over 3,400 jobs.
Still, North Woods continues to draw howls of protests from some corners.
On a recent afternoon, members of the Northern Trailers Snowmobiling Club gathered in their clubhouse outside Millinocket. When the subject of the park was brought up, the tone turned serious, and one man replied, “Fuck the national park.”
Of the seven members, none expressed support for the park, although they stressed that the club’s stance on the issue was neutral. John Raymond, who recently finished a six-year stint on the Millinocket Council, dismissed the idea that the park will bring jobs to the economically parched area. “They’ll be seasonal, low paying jobs, and they may not even go to local people,” he said.
The snowmobilers also expressed concerns that the national park would bring a lot of new regulations surrounding air quality and forestry, something Farmer dismisses as untrue.
Raymond said the region should focus on economic diversification, not just creating a national park. “They said we should not put all of our eggs in one basket with the mills, and they turned out to be right, but now they are asking us to do the same thing with the park,” he said.
In nearby Millinocket, however, political newcomer Anita Mueller rode a pro-park platform to victory in securing a seat on the town’s council, garnering 27 percent of the votes in 2014. The Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce has also endorsed the park plan.
She said that the new scaled-down park proposal is more palatable. “I support it. Even more so now that it has evolved to address local concerns. A lot of the myths have been debunked. I am very hopeful that Congress will take a leadership role and move the project forward,” she said. Yet she readily admits that she doesn’t see the park as an instant cure for all the ills that are afflicting the Millinockets.
Other council members are noncommittal or opposed.
“The council has not made a decision about whether to support or not. We want to wait until we have all the facts, from all the parties, so we can make an informed decision,” said town council chairman Richard Angotti Jr.
‘They said we should not put all of our eggs in one basket with the mills, and they turned out to be right, but now they are asking us to do the same thing with the park.’
former member, Millinocket Council
One influential group that the new park plans have — if not won over — at least given cause for pause is the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, which represents the powerful timber industry.
“We are remaining neutral on this whole conversation, which is a change for us,” said the group’s executive director, Dana Doran. The group previously came out against the park. He stressed his organization’s goal is to educate the public about the value of timber harvesting.
Can tourism and a robust timber industry coexist? “From our perspective, there can be some cohabitation. One cannot be exclusive of the other. We have a long history of timber and forest products. There is value in celebrating the history we have. Whatever is done needs to have those coexisting,” Doran said. The logging industry fought hard and spent heavily to counter the original 3.2 million acre plan.
At the Bridge, Doane said the area needs new industry more than anything. He employs 20 people in his busy restaurant. “These are people who like and want to work,” he said. “But the mills are gone, and they aren’t coming back. We need some sort of industry up here,” he said. He expressed fears that the cherished natural beauty would become inaccessible to locals. He pointed to Acadia National Park and its $20 entrance fee — $40 for an unlimited one-year pass — as a concern.
“The people around here don’t have the money to pay that,” Doane said.
Ultimately, it will come down to the state’s congressional delegation to decide whether the park happens. National parks are created through legislation, and while the delegation had expressed reservations about the previous park proposal, the new plans seem to be gaining traction.
Maine’s senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, didn’t respond to specific questions about the park. But they issued a joint statement to Al Jazeera.
“Sens. Collins and King continue to consider all perspectives on the fundamental issue of whether or not federal ownership of this land would produce more jobs and a better way of life for the residents of this beautiful region of our state,” they said.
Bruce Poliquin, the area’s House representative, and his office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
On June 11, voters in East Millinocket will finally have a chance to express their opinions by voting on the park proposal. Residents of Medway will vote on June 23. The votes are nonbinding and advisory in nature, but Maine’s congressional delegation will be watching closely. Millinocket will likely hold its own vote too.
Mueller is optimistic about the park’s prospects. She thinks a national park could stem the exodus of residents who have left along with the jobs. According to 1970 U.S. census figures, Millinocket boasted a population of 7,742. That population has fallen to 4,506, and Mueller said that if nothing is done, state projections show it dropping by an additional 40 percent by 2030.
“We need something here, or there will be nothing left to save,” Mueller said.