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Science & Environment

Pros And Cons Of Proposed Maine Woods National Park

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is a day to explore tensions between state and federal authority.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In today's program, we're hearing from a Western sheriff. He opposes federal efforts to control federal land.

INSKEEP: We also have the story of an Eastern forest. It's in Maine. And the man we're about to meet wants to give land to the federal government.

CHANG: He envisions a national monument. Maine residents question what that means for them. Here's Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: First, a little history - the heart of the North Woods, about 3.5 million acres, remains the largest undeveloped territory east of the Rockies. This is the same continuousness of forest that captivated naturalist Henry David Thoreau 150 years ago. Still mostly uninhabited, it's a place that crawled with rugged lumberjacks armed with heavy axes, where logs by the millions were floated downriver to mill towns that sprung up out of the woods themselves.

LUCAS ST. CLAIR: This river is - it's so cool the way - the upper end in Matagamon - there's, like, giant waterfall after giant waterfall. And it's just this steep crashing river.

SHARON: Lucas St. Clair is motoring up a slower-moving section of the east branch of the Penobscot River, where the log drives have long since ended. St. Clair and his foundation, Elliotsville Plantation, Inc., have put in a public boat launch and built cabins and tent platforms nearby.

They own 90,000 acres of once-working forest that is still home to moose, lynx, deer and other wildlife. And they've offered to donate it to the federal government as a national monument with the hope that it is could someday win congressional approval to be a national park. Either way, St. Clair says there would be plenty for visitors to do.

ST. CLAIR: Biking, hiking, horseback riding, obviously cars along the loop road - and then on the east side of the east branch, we allow for hunting and for snowmobile riding. There's a couple ATV trails that are open now.

SHARON: Polls show most Mainers support a national park. But there's still very strong opposition from local residents. They worry that a park will forever change their identity. And they resent not having a say in the matter. At a recent meeting with National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, residents like Sam Houston made it clear that anything to do with the federal government is a nonstarter.

SAM HOUSTON: And a government park coming - not a national park, government park. They couldn't keep an ant farm running. We don't need them. Let the state run the things.

SHARON: Over the past two years, five paper mills in Maine have closed, putting hundreds of people out of work. Some think a monument or a park will make it impossible to revive the forest products industry.

There's also lingering distrust of St. Clair's mother, philanthropist and entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby. Quimby is the founder and former CEO of the personal care products company Burt's Bees. She used her fortune to buy the land in question and now sits on the board of the National Park Service Foundation.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL BANGING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I call this meeting to order - roll call.

SHARON: In the town of Millinocket, where the Great Northern Paper mill has been idled for more than a decade and most of the downtown is shuttered, Louis Pelletier is the only town councilor who's in favor of a national monument.

LOUIS PELLETIER: The economic condition is so bad in this town and has been for so long that we have to look at all ideas for improving our situation as long as they're legal.

SHARON: National Park Director Jarvis says studies show every dollar invested in a national park returns $4 to the local economy. That's one reason the local chamber of commerce supports the plan. Jarvis says he's taking all points of view under consideration before making a recommendation to the president. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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