Our Excellent Summer Adventure – Part 2

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

In Part 1, I talked about the criteria for a national park and some of the local situations observed while on our trip out west. Before I start in again, how about a little more eye-candy:

The mouth of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

The mouth of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

I‘ll never get tired of looking at these pictures, but at the same time there’s always a twinge of disappointment that photographs really can’t properly present the scale of much of what we saw. If I had to invent an image of what a National Park should look like, this would be it. Which brings us back to the proposed park in Maine.

I won’t dispute that the land along the East Branch is nice, but is it that nice? Maine is truly blessed already with dozens of state parks, all with great scenic value and recreational opportunities. The crown jewel of course is Baxter State Park. What incredible vision and determination Governor Baxter had to preserve it for future generations. It’s common in some circles to guess what Governor Baxter’s vision would be today. We heard a lot about that during the legislative debate over the controversial Katahdin lake land swap deal. One thing for sure is that he wanted the feds to have nothing to do with his beloved Mount Katahdin.

In a 1938 letter to Arno Cammerer, director of the National Park Service Baxter wrote, “The State of Maine can and will handle the Katahdin region in a manner satisfactory to our people. The National Government has ample fields elsewhere of its Park Service and I see no reason why Maine should give Katahdin to the Federal Government any more than it should give away Old Orchard Beach or Moosehead Lake. We still are a Sovereign State and a State that will not break its trust agreements.” That is a definitive vision.

In addition to our wonderful state properties, we are truly blessed with virtually unfettered access to millions of acres of private land in Maine, something that is almost unique in the United States. 3.5 million acres of that land is protected by conservation easements, one of the highest percentages in the country. Maine’s generous private landowners have bestowed a gift to residents and visitors, and for little more than a simple request for respect and good behavior, we can enjoy a multitude of recreational opportunities.

What happens to these landowners when their new neighbor is the federal government? The history isn’t good. There are two things you can pretty much count on when a National Park is next door. The first is that there tends to be creep of their territory. Take Grand Teton for example. When President Coolidge signed the executive order creating the park in 1929, it consisted of the Teton Range itself, about 96,000 acres. As the park became established, planners decided that the range was part of a greater ecosystem deserving of protection – particularly the valley of Jackson Hole, and they set to work. The park is currently 310,000 acres, and growing.

How they happened to acquire that property is classic federal overreach with the assistance of wealthy preservationists. In many cases this group effort is celebrated in interpretive panels throughout the park. A roadside panel will say for example, “This is the former 10,000 acre Bar X Ranch. They fell on hard times when they suddenly lost their contract to supply beef to the Union Pacific Railroad. Fortunately J.D. Rockefeller’s Snake River Land Company was able to buy them out (for pennies on the dollar) and ultimately transfer the land to the federal government.”

This is a former ranch building in Jackson Hole - one of the many "willing sellers" that grew Grand Teton NP to its current size.

This is a former ranch building in Jackson Hole – one of the many “willing sellers” that grew Grand Teton NP to its current size.

Nice trick. There’s been variations of this at a much smaller scale around Acadia National Park, and how likely is it that if a park was established in the north woods that the same thing would happen, particularly on a parcel of land that needs to access many existing forest management roads that are owned by others and are used in timber operations that create jobs in an area that sorely needs them?

The other concern of being located next to a park is of course the Park Service’s tendency to insert themselves into the business of everyone that surrounds them. Like the angry old man that yells at kids to get off his lawn, the Park Service works hard to make sure that no one does anything that might possibly affect their ownership. This is done through regional planning, rules, and when all else fails through surrogates – litigation initiated by environmental groups. This stretch is celebrated on many interpretative panels at park visitor centers, like this:


Sure, this causes conflicts, but you need to understand that it is for the better good. View sheds are important, watersheds are important, protect, protect, protect. What kind of effect will this have on the existing uses of surrounding commercial forestland? At what point does fighting this type invasion of your property cross the line of economic viability? Would forestland owners decide to follow the path of the ranchers?

Several years ago, the Maine woods were pulled through the wringer over the Plum Creek Concept Plan for the Moosehead Lake region. Many folks got to see Maine’s stewards of the environment at their worst over the management of private property. Imagine how that discussion goes when you’re dealing with a sympathetic federal government who wants to work with their “stakeholders.”

So, what is the best course for this land? Elliotsville Plantation has put their cards on the table. Their presentation is an easy fix by taking advantage of the National Park “brand.” Most people in Maine believe that solution isn’t quite as easy or quite as desirable as it’s presented. For sure though, we’ll be looking at and dealing with this for some time to come.