Maine's north woods is one of the largest tracts of undeveloped and unprotected wildlands in the eastern U.S., where black bears and moose roam a “continuousness of the forest,” to borrow Henry David Thoreau’s eloquent phrase. It offers space for outdoor recreation and, perhaps most importantly in this hustle-bustle region, solitude.
It is no wonder President Obama has announced permanent protection of this land as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, a declaration decades in the making.
"Preserving this wild area will help Mainers throughout the state continue to enjoy the freedom to hike, hunt and fish along with other outdoor traditions that have been part of our natural heritage for many generations," said Jeremy Sheaffer, Maine state director for The Wilderness Society.
The announcement is not only a step forward for conservation and a big economic boost for nearby communities, which have been hit hard by the decline of the wood products industry, but a fitting celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016 at a time when public lands are under attack by some anti-conservationists.
"Donated" park offers new lifeline for region
East of Baxter State Park—and offering a view of the latter’s towering Mount Katahdin—the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument has taken a nontraditional path to monument status.
Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of the Burt’s Bees skin-care company, purchased thousands of acres in the north woods years ago, mostly from timber companies, and has been trying to donate that land to the National Park Service ever since.
According to her son, Lucas St. Clair, this was intended to provide “the permanent protection of land for activities that go to the heart and soul of the region,” among them hunting, fishing and hiking.
A vocal minority has opposed this proposal, claiming it would hurt industry. But the region, which has been hit hard by shuttered paper mills, should actually benefit greatly from the tourism and population growth the monument will bring.
It's looking an awful lot like the same pattern that has played out all over the U.S.: proposed land protections like national monuments are first greeted with skepticism or even animosity by a small group of naysayers. But local communities—and outdoor-lovers nationwide—eventually come to appreciate them, and reap the benefits of heightened visibility.
Monument will protect wildlife habitat and priceless landscape
In addition to benefits for human inhabitants of the region, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument will, of course, protect an incredible landscape and the integrity of the larger north woods ecosystem.
The monument includes vital habitat for moose, bear, lynx and Atlantic salmon. These animals require large ranges to maintain viable populations, and the new monument will ensure a secure corridor for all wildlife moving between Baxter State Park and land owned by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Public Lands. It also protects important habitat for some rare and endangered plant and insect species.
Antiquities Act remains vital tool for land protection
President Obama is using a law called the Antiquities Act to step in and protect Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act authorizes all presidents to protect historic landmarks or objects of “scientific interest” on public lands as national monuments. Many national parks, like California's Pinnacles National Park, were first protected as monuments under the law when Congress would not act. Underscoring the importance of such conservation tools is the current anti-public lands mood being fomented by some extremists in Congress and at the local level.
The Antiquities Act has been used by almost every president, and this was a natural opportunity to deploy it again. As we celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016, it is fitting to protect another great place that belongs in that select group.
All photos courtesy of Elliotsville Plantation, Inc.