Twenty-two years ago, many Mainers — most Mainers, I’d wager — were shocked to hear that a Massachusetts-based group had cast an eye northward and decided to save us from ourselves.
For many who grew up here, RESTORE: The North Woods was cast as evil; the mere fact that the group’s name suggested that our productive forests needed “restoring” came as an insult. Those North Woods, after all, served as the lifeblood of small communities throughout the northern half of Maine.
The group wanted to establish a 3.2 million-acre national park, the existing forest products industry be damned.
The concept was bold, to say the least. 3.2 million acres? In Maine? Consider: Massive Yellowstone National park covers 1 million fewer acres than that.
Many of our favorite hunting and fishing spots would have been contained within that vast park, which — thanks to the long-standing, good-neighbor policies of forest landowners — we already felt some sense of ownership to. We were welcome to visit. We were welcome to camp. And we paid very little for the privilege.
Mainers, of course, are well-known for their distrust of folks “from away.” The park proposal provided plenty of fodder for argument and consternation.
“How dare they?” we asked. “Go back to Massachusetts,” we shouted.
We put “RESTORE: Boston” bumper stickers on our cars, and vowed to never support the effort.
While RESTORE leaders didn’t do that, they did eventually fade into the background as a new national park effort, led by Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby, began to gather steam a decade later.
Quimby was an early supporter of RESTORE, and served on the group’s board of directors. But over the years, as in-state opposition to the mega-park remained steadfast, the millionaire businesswoman took a different approach.
She bought land from willing sellers, created her own project, and scaled her own proposal back to a much smaller, and more palatable park.
Still, there were hurdles left to clear.
Quimby was determined to do things her way, and burned bridges with many Mainers. Those who had leases on some of the land that she purchased were forced to move their camps. Battles with snowmobilers and hunters followed. Many rural Mainers distrusted her, and “Ban Roxanne” bumper stickers were common.
In August of 2012, Quimby made an important decision that helped provide a sea change in her effort: She turned over leadership of the park effort to her son, Lucas St. Clair.
St. Clair is a consensus builder, and a student of national parks and their origins. He also possesses a trait that’s difficult to learn: He’s willing to sit quietly and listen, even as critics shout.
That’s exactly what he did, meeting with hundreds of would-be critics — he saw them as potential allies — and trying to find common ground.
For me, that was the tipping point. For the first time, I didn’t feel like a park proposal was being driven down the throats of my fellow Mainers. Perhaps for the first time, I began to consider a new reality that included a new national park in our own vast backyard.
And that reality didn’t sound nearly as frightening as it had.
Today, the efforts of Quimby and St. Clair have been rewarded.
This morning, President Barack Obama signed into law the creation of 87,563-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which sits to the east of Baxter State Park.
Of course, there are plenty of critics out there.
Some fear the federal government. Others say the national monument won’t create nearly as many jobs, nor create nearly as much economic benefit, as proponents have been claiming.
Some just say that there’s nothing special about this particular piece of land. It’s all woods and water, after all.
Just woods. And waters.
Maine’s full of woods and waters. That’s true.
But it’s not a stretch to say that this forested paradise — with the East Branch of the Penobscot and Wassataquoik Stream threading through it — is a perfect example of the natural wonder that Maine’s northern forest possesses in spades.
In other words, it’s a perfect spot for a national monument.
Many of my fellow hunters may not agree, and may take issue with my conclusions. To them, respectfully, I suggest that the time for arguing is over. Now, it’s time to accept this new reality, and to find ways to embrace it.
Starting today, there’s one argument against the monument that no longer holds water. Some will still tell you that a park shouldn’t be foisted upon locals in the Katahdin region.
This is not a Millinocket-area project. All of us stand to gain. It’s not even a Maine project.
Instead, this is a national project.
National parks are rarely supported by everyone when they’re proposed. In time, most are appreciated by visitors from around the world.
As the months and years pass, the same will happen here. And in the not-too-distant future, here’s hoping that even more Mainers come to appreciate the wonderful gift Quimby and her family have given all of us.
Today, Katahdin Woods and Waters is our national monument.
It’s likely our future national park.
All of us.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke