EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine - More than 200 businesses have come out against a new national park in Maine's North Woods, ahead of a debate tonight on the proposal and two key municipal votes next week. The plan calls for a 75,000-acre national park between Baxter State Park and the East Branch of the Penobscot River, and a 75,000-acre recreation area that would allow snowmobiling and hunting.
Business interests in the region are at odds over the true benefits of a park's potential to bring jobs and new investment to the area and how it would affect sportsmen and the forest products industry.
Tom Gardner's family business, W.T. Gardner and Sons, owns a handful of sawmills in the Katahdin region and harvests trees on around 15,000 acres of land in the North woods. Gardner's property is right near the proposed boundary of the national park and recreation area. "Well, hello! If they put a park right beside it, you don't think that's going to slow that down or stop it?" he says.
Under the proposal for a national park and recreation area, Elliotsville Plantation, which manages Roxanne Quimby's land holdings, would donate 100,000 acres to the effort. The remaining 50,000 acres would be purchased as the project moves forward and other land owners become willing to sell.
Studies commissioned by Elliotsville Plantation say a proposed park would create 450 to 1,000 new jobs in the area and not disrupt ongoing forestry operations on surrounding lands. Even if that turned out to be true, Gardner says a park would still cost businesses like his hundreds of thousands of dollars in infrastructure costs, including better roads "because you're going to have Joe Public coming in and out. A lot of the Joe Public that would be coming here are not used to meeting a logging truck."
Gardner's was among the 200 area businesses at a press conference to voice opposition to a national park and recreation area. David Trahan, of the Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine, accuses Elliotsville Plantation of running a dishonest public relations campaign to build support for a park.
"The lands in question that are supposedly offered for a recreational area already are a recreational area," he says. "We aren't getting anything. All we're getting is federal regulation, federal restriction on land we already have available."
Supporters of the park, though, note that the proposal has strong support among residents in the region and the business community. A recent poll, commissioned by Elliotsville Plantation, showed overwhelming support for the idea in the 2nd Congressional District.
Gail Fanjoy runs the Katahdin Region Chamber of Commerce, which supports the park. "I think that there's a lot of fear, distrust, fear of change," she says. "We must look forward to the future. This is the offer on the table. I think it's a wonderful, wonderful offer. And I know that there are many businesses who understand that it's a wonderful offer as well."
Park supporters and opponents will debate tonight at 6:00 p.m. at Schenck High School in East Millinocket. Next week, Medway and East Millinocket will hold non-binding straw votes on the proposal.