Our Excellent Summer Adventure – Part 1

And why a trip to some National Parks convinced me a Maine Woods National Park isn’t a very good idea…

Snowmobiling buttoned up in April and the couple of months between the MSA annual meeting and when we need to start preparing for another great winter of snowmobiling is a fine time. The pace at the office slows, and it is the best possible time of the year to disappear for a while and see what’s happening in the rest of the world.

This year we opted for a complete change of scenery – a trip out west and visits to some of the most iconic locations in the National Park System, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. It was a trip we had talked about for years, and in almost every possible way was better than anticipated. It also underscored my conviction that a National Park in the Maine Woods would be a terrible mistake.

The Tetons from Jenny Lake

The Tetons from Jenny Lake

Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton are drop-dead beautiful. Around every bend in the road is a jaw-dropping vista. Wildlife is abundant and visible, and natural features abound. Yellowstone also has the added excitement of knowing that the entire time you’re in the park, you’re standing atop the Yellowstone Caldera, a 30 x 40 mile live volcano that could blow at any time! What more can you ask for in a vacation?

One of several geyser basins at Yellowstone

One of several geyser basins at Yellowstone

A Facebook friend who is a park proponent expressed surprise that an anti-park warrior in Maine would take a trip to other National Parks. I didn’t see the irony, but then again we certainly aren’t comparing apples to apples. Even the National Park Service seems to agree. One thing the National Park Service really likes is rules, and they even have rules on establishing the criteria for parks. A proposed unit will be considered nationally significant if it meets all four of the following standards:

  • Is an outstanding example of a particular type of resource.
  • It possesses exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the natural or cultural themes of our nation’s heritage.
  • It offers superlative opportunities for recreation for public use and enjoyment or for scientific study,
  • It retains a high degree of integrity as a true, accurate and relatively unspoiled example of the resource.

There’s no way to say this without coming off as a bit snarky; but really, does 70,000 acres of cut-over industrial timberland come close to meeting any of this criteria? Sure it’s nice, but so is the Kennebec River Gorge – beautiful, fantastic recreational opportunities, and privately owned and managed as a working forest. Would a federal intrusion there improve things? Not likely. In fact one of the few things going for the proposed park is the occasional fine views it has into Baxter State Park. As my friend Andy Young of Preserve Maine’s Traditions says, “It would be the only National Park ever created because of its views into a state park.”

If this ever does become a park, then what? The media, including the Bangor Daily News, has made of big deal recently about meetings in the greater Katahdin Region to tout the economic benefits of the park. Elliotsville Plantation has done their due diligence and commissioned Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman Montana research group, to conduct and economic analysis of the proposed park. The result of their study was not surprising – a park would likely be great for the local economy! It is also not surprising because this is just about the only type of study Headwaters does, and a quick look at their portfolio reveals that they’ve probably never seen a public space that won’t be swell for whatever local economy.

The view from the ground is a bit different. We stayed in three different “gateway” communities during our trip. Jackson Wyoming is a beautiful town with great lodging, fine restaurants, and an impressive high-end shopping district, not unlike Bar Harbor. It also has commercial airline access and several notable ski areas that provide the anchor for the wealthy leisure class that have vacation homes in the area. Money follows money and there’s no question more than a little of it has landed in Jackson, including the Rockefeller family, who has also played a pivotal role in the growth of Grand Teton National Park – more on that later.

More typical are Gardiner and West Yellowstone Montana where we spent some nights during our visit. They were both pretty unremarkable towns, littered with gift shops, bars and overpriced chain motels. Drive a few blocks off the main drag and you’ll see the dilapidated mobile homes and ramshackle houses where many of the residents of these towns live. Any industrial and manufacturing activity has long since disappeared, thanks to regional planning and rules that govern the areas surrounding National Parks – more on that in part 2.

The towns of Gardiner and West Yellowstone Montana. Wait. Maybe that's the other way around.

The towns of Gardiner and West Yellowstone Montana. Wait. Maybe that’s the other way around.

The only thing Gardiner and West Yellowstone seemed to have in common are that they were both within a few miles of a Yellowstone entrance, and that there were a lot of low-end service jobs that were not held by locals. Yup, I was surprised too. Foreign guest workers flood these areas every tourist season and appear to make up the bulk of the service workers in these towns. You’d see the locals at the convenience store or gas station, or maybe they’d have a small guiding business that could make for a decent living provided they had navigated that NPS rules and managed to obtain a permit or license to operate within the boundaries of the Park. Ditto for the restaurants and hotels within the Parks. Their employee base is almost exclusively non-resident and I guess that makes sense for them. They live in dorms in the parks and aren’t faced with a 30-40 mile daily commute from town to the interior of the Park to bus tables or clean rooms for low wages.

There’s no question the Katahdin Region is in a difficult situation, but to suggest that the creation of a national park is the fix is a disservice to the region, particularly when the creation of a park could create significant problems for the continuation of the forest products industry in the area.

In part 2 I’ll take a look at park management and growth and its effect on the surrounding region. Look for it in a few days…