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Maine Woods National Park Remains Divisive For Some Locals


When it comes to the National Park Service, nothing says happy 100th birthday quite like the addition of almost 88,000 acres in the heart of Maine's North Woods. This week, President Obama designated the land as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. But as Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio reports, the monument remains a divisive issue for some local residents.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: In his nine-page proclamation, President Obama called this land an exceptional example of the rich and storied Maine Woods. The woods of Maine are vast, several million acres, so the National Monument only represents a splinter. But it's also home to the east branch of the Penobscot River, part of one of the least-developed watersheds in the northeastern United States. One of the first official visitors was Interior Secretary Sally Jewell who paddled several miles of the river, including a section of rapids. It's a river that bends and widens and includes several waterfalls. But all around it is a forest that stretches across hills and mountains in the distance. Here, it's not uncommon to see moose or deer and millions of glittering stars at night.

SALLY JEWELL: I can't think of a better place to be on a more beautiful day in a more beautiful place. I mean, this is really incredible, and what a gift to the American people for generations to come.

SHARON: Jewell says the nation's newest monument is special, not only because of its biodiversity and scenic mountain views but because of its cultural and historical significance. The Penobscot Indian nation has long treasured the region for hunting and fishing. Lumberjacks also relied on these woods, cutting down trees that were floated downstream to mills in the towns below.

JEWELL: Logging is a very, very important part of the history of this region, and embracing that story is also very important, and that will be part of the interpretation of the national park.

SHARON: Camping, hiking and paddling are already attracting visitors to the monument. There are some facilities in place with more to be built. Snowmobiling, hunting and ATVs will also be allowed on a portion of the monument, and soon the Park Service will get local residents' input on how they want it to be managed. But for some local residents, there is strong resentment. A year ago, voters in several towns rejected the park idea. Mark Marston is a selectman from East Millinocket.

MARK MARSTON: It's kind of disheartening to think that everybody in the area is against this, and it's being shoved down our throat all because someone's got money.

SHARON: That someone is Roxanne Quimby, the founder of the personal care products company known as Burt's Bees. Quimby used her wealth to buy and conserve this land with the hope that she could someday turn it over to the National Park Service. But this is a place where many others' hopes have been shattered. The forest products industry is in transition. Paper mills that once powered the local economy have been shuttered, and hundreds of good paying jobs have been lost. Philippe Page worked in the East Millinocket mill for 40 years. He and others are skeptical that the monument will do much to change the picture.

PHILIPPE PAGE: I don't believe it's going to create the jobs, and we all know it's not going to that they claim it's going to.

SHARON: But for all the vocal opposition, there is also strong support from local business owners and hundreds of others who've written letters, attended meetings and testified about the vision they share for Maine's North Woods. It's something that land donor Roxanne Quimby has been trying to make happen for nearly 20 years.

ROXANNE QUIMBY: I would like to have a resource that is available to all Americans, my children and all children to enjoy for the future.

SHARON: Quimby views this gift of conservation and recreation as her legacy. The jobs that may come with it would be icing on the cake. And while Quimby would love to see congressional approval for creation of a national park, a national monument, which this week was designated by order of the president, makes a nice plan B. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deputy News Director Susan Sharon is a reporter and editor whose on-air career in public radio began as a student at the University of Montana. Early on, she also worked in commercial television doing a variety of jobs. Susan first came to Maine Public Radio as a State House reporter whose reporting focused on politics, labor and the environment. More recently she's been covering corrections, social justice and human interest stories. Her work, which has been recognized by SPJ, SEJ, PRNDI and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, has taken her all around the state — deep into the woods, to remote lakes and ponds, to farms and factories and to the Maine State Prison. Over the past two decades, she's contributed more than 100 stories to NPR.