National Park Yes/National Park No

The week before last we took two day trips that reminded us of why Fall is the best P1020370season in Maine.  First we visited the new unit of Acadia National Park, Schoodic Woods.  Next day we took a hike in Baxter State Park.  We enjoyed lunches in two of the most scenic spots in Maine– a picnic on the rocks at Schoodic point and a meal at River Drivers restaurant with it stunning view of Katahdin.

The trips also got me thinking about the proposed Katahdin Woods and Waters national park and national recreation area.  Two issues are important to deciding whether a new national park is a good idea.  What would a new park add to Maine’s opportunities in our vast forest resources?  Who should get to decide whether this is the right thing to do?

The roadway from I95 to Baxter State Park was festooned with signs, mostly “National Park No” or “No Park for ME,” with a few “National Park Yes” scattered along the way.  If road signs numbers matter, Millinocket and East Millinocket residents are not big supporters of the proposed new park and recreation area.  I was struck that there were no “National Park No” or “National Park Yes” signs on the Schoodic Peninsula.  The residents of Winter Harbor and Gouldsboro see no need to express their opinions on the presence of an addition to the national park in their neighborhoods, perhaps because it is a fait accompli or there is little division in the towns on the value of national park lands in their communities.

I also was struck by the differences in experiences between Schoodic Woods and Baxter State Park.  The National Park Service is very good at developing campgrounds, hiking trains, and bike ways that are central to recreation in the new landscape.  Baxter State Park, keeping to Governor Baxter’s “forever wild” vision, is a much more rustic experience.  And of course the size of the two parks is very different.  Baxter is much bigger and much more remote.  What I think our day trips tell me is how a new Katahdin Woods and Waters Park would be different from Baxter in the types of outdoor recreation experience it would offer; it would be more developed, more accessible, and would draw more visitors from away than come to the Katahdin region now.  This diversification would address what I have termed the Myth of Pinchot, the idea that Maine’s North Woods can be managed as multiple use forests and provide all uses to all users all of the time.

Our day trips also pointed out that one of the real quandaries posed by the new park idea is figuring out whose opinions should matter in deciding whether the park should be established.  Much of the land that would make up the park is currently owned by Elliotsville Plantation, a foundation created by Roxanne Quimby.  If the foundation, as a private landowner, wants to give its land to the Federal government to establish a park, isn’t that just another exercise of private property rights, just like deciding to manage the land for timber production?  Of course, we have well established in Maine that land owners do not have unlimited property rights and that there is a public interest in limiting how people exercise those rights.  So which “public” should we listen to?

Shouldn’t the people of Medway, Millinocket, and East Millinocket get to decide?  These communities have suffered from the consolidation of pulp and paper mills in Maine and some of their residents feel like a new park will inhibit the return of the well-paying jobs that are central to their heritage.  The new park idea threatens the very cultural foundations of these communities.  Like many communities, these towns exhibit an attribute that economists call status quo bias.  They prefer things to stay as they have been.  On the other hand, unlike Winter Harbor’s circumstance, the lands proposed for the new park and recreation area are not actually in Medway, Millinocket, or East Millinocket.  Does that matter?

Perhaps the Penobscot Nation should be consulted.  The Penobscots are the descendants of the first immigrants to this region, which gives them some priority in matters of importance to how the lands are used.

Or maybe the people of the larger Kathadin region should have the most input.  Of course, we would have to decide just who counts as residents of this “region.”  Recent survey data from Critical Insights show that the majority of residents in “Northern Maine” (defined as Aroostook, Penobscot, Piscataquis, and Somerset Counties) support the national park idea.  Support in these counties is nearly as great as the statewide average – 60% of all Mainers support the idea while 20% oppose it.

For me, all of this leaves out at least one important group, people of the future.  What will the future think of us if we establish a national park in Maine’s North Woods?  Will they be grateful or regret our decision? Of course, we cannot ask them directly, but we can do more than guess what the future might think.

As part of a larger project led by UMaine economist Caroline Noblet, I helped in a study designed to see how thinking about historical events might change how people think about policies with future implications.  The idea is that those of us alive today are those “future people” for whom our ancestors made decisions.  One question we asked in this study was, how does thinking about Governor Baxter’s gift of his land to the people of Maine affect how people think about the gift of land for a new national park today.  The results were published in the technical journal Ecological Economics.

Two of our findings are relevant here.  First, the vast majority of Mainers (89%) said that they were grateful for the gift of the park that Governor Baxter made to Maine.  Second, thinking about the legacy of Baxter made Mainers more amenable to the idea of Elliotsville Plantation giving land today to establish a new park.  The wrinkle in our findings was that thinking about Baxter’s gift of a park made Mainers more likely to think the new park should be a state park rather than a national park.

The North Maine Woods is large enough to generate forest products, rustic recreation opportunities, and more developed facilities like those offered by the National Park Service.  Maybe there is even room for some wilderness, which using the criteria set under the National Wilderness Act of 1964, there is virtually none of in Maine.  It will only be by segregating uses, transcending the myth of multiple use forest management, that we will generate the most public good from this vast and important resource.

If the survey takers call tonight, put me down in favor of a National Park in Maine’s North Woods.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.