Private Profit or Public Good?

Forests cover 80 percent of Maine but only seven percent of the state land is publicly owned.

Out on the trail at dawn, before the summer crowds arrive, you could feel alone in the world that is Acadia National Park. Yet, the park sees 2.8 million visitors a year in an area of less than 75 square miles. Acadia was the first national park in the east and the first created entirely from donations of private land.

Today in Maine, there is an effort to create a new national monument — a designation that Acadia and many other national parks began with, requiring only a stroke of the president’s pen. The proposed North Woods national monument is also a donation of private land: 87,500 acres in an area just east of Baxter State Park and northeast of Bangor.

The proposal is controversial. It pits the interests of the forest industry against those who see a larger public good in preserving the land and creating a tourism-based economy. In recent years, five paper mills have closed in this area. Those who lost good-paying jobs in these mills fear that taking the forest out of commercial development will preclude those jobs from ever returning.

Logging is a rich tradition in this area. The River Drivers restaurant in Millinocket pays homage to a time when hundreds of men would float logs downriver in spring to set them on their way to the mills. But this tradition has faded into history, and even the restaurant has had to relocate to a larger ecotourism resort to ensure its future. The mills have closed, in large part, because the products they make — paper for magazines and newspapers — feed a declining industry. Competition from overseas mills has increased. Those logging jobs are unlikely to return.

The future of Maine’s north woods, absent public ownership, is likely to be a far different story. Timber companies have been selling their lands to investors, developers and real estate investment trusts. Looking for short-term gain, there is already evidence of these lands being developed for subdivisions or vacation homes. As property values rise, the very workers who hope to have their old jobs back will instead be priced out of their own communities.

Tourism in Maine is a $5.6 billion business. Acadia National Park contributes $305 million of that, according to 2015 National Park Service figures. This spending also supports 3,878 jobs. Proponents of the North Woods park estimate that it would see about 10 percent of Acadia’s visitation, or about 250,000 annual visitors. Adjacent Baxter State Park — home to Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail — gets 60,000 annually.

To accomodate 250,000 visitors would require new hotels, campgrounds, restaurants and other travel services. The proposed park area itself has little road access. This is not Yellowstone or Yosemite. Millinocket, the likely gateway to North Woods as it is to Baxter, is an hour north of Bangor, whose airport is served by American, Allegiant and United, and just 20 minutes from I-95. It’s likely to benefit from the North Woods national monument, but the mainly seasonal, low-wage service industry jobs that will be created won’t replace the lost timber industry jobs. It’s a scenario that has played out across the American economy in recent decades.

Two thousand miles west, in Utah, more than 25 Native American tribes have called for the protection of 1.9 million acres as the proposed Bears Ears National Monument. It is home to 100,000 archeological and cultural sites of importance to indigenous peoples of the Southwest. These sites are being plundered by looters. And there’s potential opportunities in the area for oil and gas extraction, along with potash and uranium mining.

These are not new battles. They have been rehearsed and played thoughout the history of public lands, forcing us to answer the question of whether our common ground is there for the benefit of private profit or public good.

— Dan Zukowski, DBZphoto.com