Hidden gem of the Northeast: Maine's North Woods could be new national park or monument

In the cramped, heavily developed Northeast, natural beauty and solitude are especially precious.

Protected public lands like Acadia National Park and Cape Cod National Seashore are (rightly) celebrated, but there simply aren’t as many big, wild landscapes here as there are in western states. 
So pay attention to one of the region’s best-kept secrets: Maine’s North Woods, where surging rivers twist through acres of dense fir, hemlock and spruce forest.
In this landscape, one of the largest tracts of undeveloped and unprotected wildlands in the eastern U.S., black bears and moose roam a “continuousness of the forest,” to borrow Henry David Thoreau’s eloquent phrase.
East of Baxter State Park—and offering a view of the latter’s towering Mount Katahdin—a stretch known as the Katahdin Woods & Waters Recreation Area offers ample opportunity for hiking, canoeing, hunting, fishing and more.
The North Woods are among America’s truly exemplary wildlands, and a decades-long movement seeks to recognize that with a rare honor: permanent protection as a national park or national monument.

Location of proposed monument or park. Click for full-size PDF. Source: Maine Woods National Monument

A North Woods national park or monument would be a gift 

Something else makes the North Woods special—it is a gift. Literally.  

Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of the Burt’s Bees skin-care company, has purchased thousands of acres in the North Woods, mostly from timber companies. For years, her family’s foundation has been trying to donate 87,500 acres to the National Park Service, following in the footsteps of philanthropists like the Rockefellers and Mellons. This donation would parcel out half of the land to be protected as a national park, and half as a national recreation area—and would come with a $40 million endowment to pay for operating costs. 

Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son, has said the land donation would provide “the permanent protection of land for activities that go to the heart and soul of the region,” among them hunting, fishing and hiking (the national recreation area half would allow some activities like snowmobiling that are restricted in national parks). A recent public poll found that 60 percent of Maine voters support the proposal, while only 20 percent oppose it, results that include “Men and women, voters of all ages, conservatives, moderates and liberals … with large majorities in each group favoring it,” according to a pollster

Opposition to a national park in the North Woods has mostly relied on the argument that it would hurt industry. But the region, which has been hit hard by shuttered paper mills, could actually benefit greatly from new land protections. A national park or monument would put the North Woods on the map and boost the economies of local communities by driving tourism and attracting residents (communities around national parks tend to see greater population growth). 

2012 report concluded that a North Woods national park could open up economic opportunities for neighboring counties (in 2015, visitors to national parks spent $16.9 billion in nearby communities). Outdoor recreation in Maine already generates about $5.3 billion in consumer spending annually, directly supporting 65,000 jobs.  

The economic possibilities of permanent protection in the North Woods have led the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce and more than 200 businesses across the state to endorse the proposal. A spokesman for Elliotsville Plantation, Inc., a foundation through which the Quimbys manage the land, has explained that “We want to bring the Acadia [National Park] tourism inland and create a corridor that will help the whole region.”  

National park would require Congress; will President Obama act? 

However, designating a new national park in the North Woods would require an act of Congress, something that has not been easy to accomplish amid the partisanship and gridlock of recent years. In the last decade, only California’s Pinnacles National Park has passed the House and Senate. 

If this continues, we urge President Obama to use a law called the Antiquities Act to step in and protect the North Woods as a 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 Pinnacles, were first protected as monuments under the law when Congress would not act.   

The Antiquities Act has been used by almost every president, and the North Woods would be a natural opportunity to deploy it again. As we celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016, it would be fitting to protect another great place that belongs in that select group. 

Ask President Obama to protect the North Woods as a national monument

All photos by Elliotsville Plantation, Inc.