On the second day of his visit to the Millinocket region, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke offered some encouragement to local supporters of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
Zinke is reviewing 27 monuments, and says he expects to make a recommendation about the future in the next 80 days. And he says he hasn’t ruled out the recommendation that Congress go a step further and establish it as a national park instead.
During a tour of the national monument on Wednesday, Zinke sounded mostly upbeat. He said everyone should be grateful for the Quimby family’s gift of what he described as “beautiful ground.”
But not everyone is. There are still signs critical of the monument on the way to the south entrance. And Gov. Paul LePage has criticized it as a “mosquito-infested” wasteland.
Zinke says he’s confident there’s a way forward, one that could include more traditional uses on the property. And on Day 2 of his trip to Maine, he offered a hint of what might be in store.
“We have an opportunity to do something different here. And you can harvest timber. You can hunt. You can respect traditional uses in the confines of a monument or a park, and so we’re looking at the appropriateness of a monument versus a park and looking at how would we do that,” he says.
Establishing a national park requires congressional approval. It’s something land donor Roxanne Quimby and her son Lucas St. Clair have always wanted.
Most national parks, including Maine’s own Acadia National Park, began as monuments first. But members of Maine’s congressional delegation have never moved forward with the necessary legislation for Katahdin Woods and Waters.
Zinke says their support would be essential.
“So, it’d be unlikely to pursue that unless I have support from the congressional delegation,” he says.
For Gail Fanjoy, the recent president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, the fact that Zinke is even considering that possibility is a big relief. During a breakfast meeting with him Thursday morning, Fanjoy appealed to his 22-year background as a Navy Seal when she said the region is in a fight for its very survival.
Mills have closed. Stores have shuttered. Half the population has been lost over the past two decades. The local hospital is struggling to hang on. The monument, she says, has been a spark.
“You know, things started to happen. Small things, but really important things,” Fanjoy says.
Things, she says, like property values going up, business investments and more tourists coming to the area.
Before the meeting she says she was anxious about the monument’s future — but after hearing Zinke’s words, she’s not.
“You know, when he said to me, ‘You don’t have to worry.’ And when he was making plans for our monument for the future, when he referred to it as a national park, when he said ‘This makes more sense to be a national park.’ And, of course, we totally agree,” Fanjoy says.
Three years ago the chamber’s board came out unanimously in support of a national park and national recreation area. But as time went on and the congressional delegation was reluctant to submit legislation, Fanjoy says the chamber opted for the monument designation instead.
National park status, she says, would create a higher-profile brand for the Katahdin region.
“It’s a very realistic option and it’s something that we worked on a for a long time, and we hope that our congressional delegation ultimately does pass legislation,” St. Clair says.
St. Clair, the monument’s chief spokesperson, says he discussed the possibility with Zinke, who says he wants to make sure that local cultural traditions are included. St. Clair says establishing a park could do that in a way a monument designation can’t.
“You know, a proclamation doesn’t have legislative authority, so we could say that the cultural heritage of the forest products industry could be interpreted here,” he says. “All the structures could be built out of Maine wood; that local guides and outfitters would have preferential treatment when they apply for permits. You know, those types of things could be added to it that just can’t be done through a proclamation.”
Whatever Zinke decides, business owners say his review of the monument has brought them even closer together. When Fanjoy asked the 40 people at the breakfast meeting to stand up if they support the monument, no one remained seated.