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A Birthday Gift for NPS: Obama Creates Maine Woods National Monument

Decades of efforts to establish a national park in Maine’s vast North Woods region pay off

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valleyIn honor of the National Park Service, which turns 100 today, President Obama yesterday signed into law the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine using his authority under the Antiquities Act.

Obama’s action follows in the tradition of many other presidents who have created national monuments such as the Grand Canyon, Grand Tetons, Olympic and others that were subsequently upgraded to national park status. The new national monument – which will be managed by the National Park Service – will protect approximately 87,500 acres, including the stunning East Branch of the Penobscot River and a portion of the Maine Woods that is rich in biodiversity. "The protected area – together with the neighboring Baxter State Park to the west – will ensure that this large landscape remains intact, bolstering the forest’s resilience against the impacts of climate change," the White House said in a statement yesterday.

view of Moosehead LakePhoto by George WuerthnerA View of Moosehead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Maine, from top of Mt. Kineo in the North Woods.

There were several earlier attempts to establish a national park in the Maine Woods starting in the early 1900s, but all failed (read “A Park that Begs Creating”). The most recent effort to protect the Maine Woods began back in the 1980s and illustrates how persistence and perseverance can pay off. Conservation is more like the tortoise, not the hare — a slow continuous process that can take decades.

Back in the 1980s, I was writing several books on Maine, Vermont, and the Adirondacks that revealed that much of northern New England was owned by large timber corporations. I also learned that the regional timber industry was in steep decline, and much of the corporate lands were being sold off. And I also knew that nearly all of the parks and national forests in the eastern United States had been created by purchasing private lands. Here, I thought, was an opportunity. Feeling there was not enough public land in the region, I wrote an article proposing the creation of a national park in northern New England. I shopped it around, but no one would publish it. The editors kept asking me who or what group supported this and all I could only say it was my idea, but it was an idea worth considering.

Hoping to get some publicity for the concept, I submitted the article to the Earth First! Journal under John Davis editorship. Davis immediately published it, and the piece was subsequently read by Tom Watkins, editor at Wilderness Magazine published by the Wilderness Society. Watkins was intrigued by the idea and asked me to write a piece for Wilderness Magazine describing the idea. This generated greater attention to the situation in the Maine Woods and the opportunity for a major conservation effort. In addition, I wrote editorials and letters to regional papers advocating the creation of national parks in the region. This generally resulted in letters of opposition, but at least the seed was planted.

In gathering information for the article, I met with Michael Kellett who was at that time the North East rep for the Wilderness Society. Kellett and I immediately hit it off, and in the early 1990s we created RESTORE the North Woods to advocate for a big 3.2-million-acre national park in the Maine Woods. Kellett put together a proposal that would encompass the best features of the region, including the headwaters of major wild rivers, backcountry ponds, and protect the shorelines of Moosehead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Maine. Forests of paper birch, aspen, and spruce, as well as hardwoods like sugar maples, cover this land where a rich variety of wildlife, including moose, black bear, lynx, and marten roam. There is no place else outside of Alaska where so much land is essentially undeveloped, though not entirely untouched.

rafters in rapids Photo George Wuerthner Rafters in Penobscot River. Maine Woods is also known for its outstanding outdoors recreational
opportunities, including hiking, canoeing, and cross-country skiing.

We unveiled the park proposal in 1994 and were met with much opposition and ridicule from the timber industry.

But we were supported by many conservationists like David Carle, Jim St Pierre, and Ken Spalding, who joined our campaign. Activists like Jamie Sayen, Brock Evans, Charles Fitzgerald, Rudy Engholm, and a host of others who had the imagination to persist even in the face of great opposition also joined the RESTORE board. 

All through the 1990s and 2000s RESTORE continued to advocate for the protection of Maine Woods with the help of many other supporters in Maine and from outside the state. (It takes a lot of people to create the public acceptance of a new park). There was much opposition to the idea of a park from locals. But having a solid knowledge of conservation history, we were not dissuaded. We knew that local opposition to land conservation was the expected initial reaction and conservation groups should not be discouraged by it. Nor should they compromise their goals to win local support. Just continue pushing for it.

Indeed, by 2000 the tide had started to turn and a poll showed that 56 percent of Maine residents supported the creation of a national park in the Maine Woods. In 2001 an economic report commissioned by RESTORE and completed by University of Montana economist, Thomas Power, demonstrated that a national park in the Maine Woods would complement the existing but declining timber industry.

All this pro and con attention helped to generate state acquisition of lands, along with conservation easements on many private parcels. Millions of acres of the Maine Woods were sold during this period, mostly to other timber companies or investment groups. But the land remained largely in big parcels making the acquisition for a park a real possibility. 

In pushing for the creation of a 3.2-million-acre national park RESTORE created a list of prominent Americans who supported the idea. The list included celebrities like Jeff Bridges, Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Holly Hunter, Laura Linnet, Robert Redford, Ted Danson, Christopher Reeves, Meryl Streep, and Sam Waterston.

The critical piece of the puzzle fell in place when the idea caught the imagination of philanthropist Roxanne Quimby, who began purchasing large swaths of land in the proposed park area in 2003. Following in the footsteps of other great conservation philanthropists — from John D Rockefeller and Percival Baxter to modern day conservationists like Hans Jorge Wyss, Peter Buckley, Kris and Doug Tompkins — Quimby began strategically amassing lands east of Baxter State Park for a potential park.  

Persevering in the face of great hostility and opposition, Quimby and especially her son, Lucas St. Clair were able to persuade more Mainers to support the idea of a park.

By 2015 more than 200 businesses came out in favor a park and preserve and a poll showed support for a park among 67 percent of the people living in the Congressional district of the proposed park.

Federal officials in the Park Service acknowledged that the lands Quimby had accumulated were of national park quality and efforts were begun to get President Obama to accept the lands and designate them as a national monument under the administration of the National Park Service.

Thanks to Quimby and St. Clair, we now have a new national monument. They persisted in their goal despite a huge amount of hostility from some local folks. They deserve the thanks of all Americans. I consider them national patriots. 

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