Fashioning a New National Park in Maine

Way up in the far northeastern corner of the United States, in a lush valley of forests and lakes made famous by Henry David Thoreau, as chronicled in “The Maine Woods”, lies what could be the nation’s 60th national park. Or, at least, its next national monument.

That’s the hope of a private foundation, the Sierra Club, outdoor retailer Patagonia, and other supporters. Logged extensively for at least 100 years beginning in the 1830s, its timber is no longer commercially valuable and the mills that it served closed 30 years ago. Today, it is used by outdoor enthusiasts who venture into the region by foot, snowshoes, skis or snowmobiles. The area is home to moose, black bears, Canada lynx, white-tailed deer, Eastern coyotes and fox. Bisected by the East Branch of the Penobscot River, its waters and lakes are fertile fishing grounds.

Prior to European settlement, the region was home to Penobscot Indians, part of the the Wabanaki family. A small band of about 600 now live on a thin strip of land south of the proposed park. Thus, the area is of historic and cultural significance.

In 1879, while a student at Harvard, future president Theodore Roosevelt hiked through this area en route to a climb of Mt. Katahdin, today the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. “Although conditions were wet and slippery, the young man effortlessly toted a forty-five pound pack up the ever-steepening mountain,” writes Edmund Morris in his biography, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.” TR even lost a shoe, fashioned a mocassin in its stead, and reached the summit in the company of two lumbermen.

Katahdin lies within Baxter State Park, which adjoins the proposed national park. The majority of the land from the state park east to the river is owned by the Elliotsville Plantation, which supports the park idea. East of the river, some parcels are in private hands while others are public lands.

The Elliotsville Plantation envisions a national park west of the East Branch of the Penobscot River, and a National Recreation Area to the east. A National Recreation Area would allow additional uses that are generally closed to national park sites, including snowmobiling and hunting. Other National Recreation Areas, which are administered by the National Park Service, include the Delaware Water Gap, Golden Gate, Columbia River Gorge and Chattahoochee River.

Among the draws to this area is its scenic beauty, recognized by artists and photographers from the 19th century on. Frederic Edwin Church and George Hallowell both painted here, and Myron H. Avery photographed the beauty of the Kathadin region in the 1800s. I have photographed in adjacent Baxter State Park but have not had a chance to visit the area of the proposed park as yet. I will look to remedy that this summer.

The most likely scenario is that President Obama may declare the area, or some portion thereof, as a national monument before his term ends. That’s how many of our great national parks began, and will establish conservation on the Katahdin woods, protecting the land for future generations.