A New Maine National Park?

August 24, 2016
maine national park
Mark PicardSupporters of a new Maine Woods national park tout the area’s natural resources, including its mountains and forests.

UPDATE: On August 24, after this story went to press, President Barack Obama designated 87,500 acres as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Elliotsville Plantation, Inc., donated the land to the federal government along with a $20 million endowment to assist with operational needs and infrastructure development, and a commitment to raise an additional $20 million in coming years. The announcement was made one day before the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary.

In the North Woods of Maine lies an 80,500-acre tract of land that typifies the beauty of the region. Here the East Branch of the Penobscot River runs through hardwood forest, twisting and turning, ferrying kayakers from unnamed township (T6 R8) to unnamed township (T3 R7). Here visitors can glimpse Katahdin rising more than 5,000 feet into the sky to the west. And here the public could visit a new national park, if Lucas St. Clair gets his way.

St. Clair is the president of Elliotsville Plantation Inc., a nonprofit that aims to turn this piece of family-owned land into a national monument, with the ultimate goal of it becoming a national park. While many local residents, business owners, and conservationists support St. Clair’s plan, others view the park as a threat to the timber trade and, by extension, the northern Maine way of life. Either way, St. Clair anticipates a decision this year.

“We hope that the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service [in 2016] will provide a natural opportunity to make the presidential proclamation,” St. Clair says of his wish for President Obama to designate the land a national monument. In the interest of gaining the president’s attention, St. Clair has commissioned economic surveys, vetted and revetted plans, and garnered support from conservation organizations, including AMC. “[Obama] has to decide, taking into account feedback from local people,” St. Clair says.

This is exactly where the process gets tricky. While many Maine residents do support the proposed national monument, others feel the land should be turned over to the state or the local government.

Maine Woods MapBryan Wentzell, AMC’s Maine policy and program director, calls the land, particularly the East Branch of the Penobscot River, “spectacular.” What’s more, he explains, there’s its history to consider. “That’s what sets many national parks apart—the national, historic significance,” he says. The Penobscot is where Henry David Thoreau gathered material for his seminal 1864 book, The Maine Woods. In 1897, Theodore Roosevelt hiked through en route to Katahdin, a trip that greatly influenced the future president. And then there’s the legacy of the Penobscot Nation, a tribe that still resides in central Maine and has publicly supported the proposed park.

There is also a history of forestry in Maine, and many Millinocket residents see the park as a threat to their legacy and lifestyle. Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, says that due to the patchwork nature of the property, landowners in the area fear they will be pressured to add their land to the park in order to create a continuous block. “Our manufacturing members are concerned about the proximity of the park to future manufacturing sites and are wondering if the designation will limit capital investors’ interest in the area because of regulatory creep,” Strauch says.

Proponents argue that forestry in Maine is alive and well, and that a federal designation would not hinder the industry. “None of us is saying that the forest-products industry is dying or dead,” Wentzell says. “It’s very robust, but better technology means we’re doing the same work with a fraction of the jobs we had five or 10 years ago.”

And where jobs are concerned, “National parks are powerful,” St. Clair says. “This park could create between 400 and 1,000 new jobs for Mainers. For me, it’s really important to have the communities in interior Maine thriving.”


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Katy Kelleher

Katy Kelleher is a writer and editor who lives in a small house in Portland, Maine, with two dogs and one fiancé.