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Could Donald Trump Undo the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument?

Mark Picard
via NRCM
The east branch of the Penobscot River, part of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

President-elect Donald Trump could do something no president has done before if he attempts to undo the newly christened Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. But there are big questions about whether a president has the legal authority to make such a move.

The unique deal that allowed philanthropist and entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby to donate nearly 90,000 acres to the federal government could also pose additional legal and political roadblocks.

When Quimby’s nonprofit Elliotsville Plantation deeded over swaths of her North Woods property to the U.S. government in August, the transfer came with strings attached. The details of the $100 million deal became public when President Barack Obama designated the property as a national monument shortly thereafter.

The National Park Service will manage a property set aside for hiking, camping, paddling and fishing. Hunting and snowmobiling will be allowed on some of the property.

Then there’s the other agreement: Quimby’s nonprofit will provide $20 million to the Park Service to operate and maintain the facility. And she agreed to raise another $20 million for the same purpose.

“There has never been this much money given to one specific national park unit,” says Kristen Brengel, in the 100 years of the park service.

Brengel is with the National Parks Conservation Association, which oversees and facilitates deals like the one for Katahdin Woods and Waters. She doesn’t understand why anyone would want to undo the national monument, and questions whether Trump even has the power to do it.

And Brengel says the financial commitment from Quimby makes such a move difficult.

“This gives this particular national monument a leg-up in terms of funding. Why would you want to discourage other philanthropists from doing similar to what Roxanne has done?” she says.

Advocates of the park argue that the endowment is a critical piece of the deal, one that could make unraveling the designation more complicated politically, if not legally. Its inclusion comes at a time when the National Park Service faces a record $12 billion shortfall in deferred maintenance at its existing parks and monuments.

Meanwhile, opponents of the Maine monument are wondering whether Trump will attempt something no president has done before, speculation spurred by comments Trump made during a rally he held in Bangor in October.

“No consideration was made for local concerns, impacts on jobs or the Maine forestry sector, which is such an important — it’s like so important for you. And nobody even thought of it. They don’t care about you,” he said.

Trump went on to describe the monument designation as an overreach. He then said his administration would “turn it all around.” At that moment, Trump appeared to be speaking broadly about the economy, not just the monument. But he has vowed to undo a slew of executive actions taken by Obama.

A Trump spokeswoman did not respond to inquiries about the monument.

Local officials opposed to the monument say it’s too soon to speculate about undoing Katahdin Woods and Waters. Peter Steele, a spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage, says the governor’s too focused on drafting the state budget to get involved in the monument discussion.

Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin is also mum on whether he’ll attempt to lobby Trump about it.

Poliquin brought members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources to Maine for a field hearing on the issue in June. But he appeared to soften his position after the designation was made official, saying he opposed the unilateral action by Obama, but also vowing to ensure that the project moved in a way that spurred the local economy.

A spokesman for Poliquin says it’s premature to address the future of monument.

“We would absolutely defend the monument if there was a threat to its existence. Definitely,” says Cathy Johnson with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Johnson says she doubts Trump will attempt to unilaterally get rid of the monument. She and other advocates believe Trump doesn’t have the authority to do so by himself.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 allows presidents to designate national monuments. Presidents have changed monuments created by their predecessors. Some have become national parks. Others simply lapsed when the conservation goal wasn’t achieved. But no president has attempted to undo one.

A 2016 paper by the Congressional Research Service questioned whether presidents have that power. A 1938 opinion by the U.S. Attorney General made a similar determination.

But the issue has never been in court. That could entice Trump to test the limits of the century-old law. Brengel hopes Americans’ favorable view of national parks and monuments will deter Trump. The Park Service saw a record 307 million visitors last year.

“You really have to weigh all the political liabilities of moving forward with an idea like this. It’s pretty dangerous when thinking about the future of conservation,” she says.

Of course, Trump has defied other political conventions on his way to winning the presidency. And that has opponents of the monument hopeful he’ll test this one.