Baxter, a state park, is deep in Maine’s North Woods and distinguished by nearly mile-high Katahdin. Located more than 150 miles away, Acadia, the only national park in the Northeast, boasts much smaller mountains that hug the Atlantic Ocean.
But behind these seemingly different places are some historical and social ties that go back more than 100 years, and common challenges of balancing economic development, tourism and land preservation.
With the debate over a proposed new national park next to Baxter heating up, there may be lessons to be learned from the ties that bind Acadia and Baxter. Last month, a petition with 13,000 signatures in support of the national park proposal was delivered to Maine’s Congressional delegation. But facing opposition, backers are now trying the easier national monument designation, needing only presidential action.
First, the people connection between Acadia and Baxter. Over the years, area residents, visitors and park employees have made the trip from Mount Desert Island to the Katahdin region, or vice versa, hiking the trails, paddling the waters, supporting the economy, or otherwise giving back:
- In 1925, George B. Dorr, the “father of Acadia” and its first superintendent, climbed Katahdin with then-Maine Gov. Ralph Owen Brewster, whose predecessor in office, Percival Baxter, later bought and donated the land for what became Baxter State Park.
- During the late 1800s, a young Theodore Roosevelt climbed the hills of Mount Desert Island, and also ascended the heights of Katahdin in the company of Maine guide Bill Sewall, whose home in Island Falls near Baxter is now a yoga retreat run by his great granddaughter.
- Charlie Jacobi, natural resource specialist at Acadia National Park, served as president of the Friends of Baxter State Park for three years, and continues to be involved with that non-profit.
- This Saturday, Dec. 12, Gary Allen, founder and director of the Mount Desert Island Marathon, is hosting an impromptu free marathon and half marathon in Millinocket, requesting only that participants spend at least what they would have on race entry fees, at local businesses.
And here are some of the issues that have shaped Acadia and Baxter over the years, and that may still be relevant for today’s debate over Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby’s proposal, to donate what’s now known as Katahdin Woods & Water Recreation Area, as a new national park or national monument in Maine:
Acadia and Baxter links provide insights for proposed Maine park
Federal vs. state protection – People have long opposed proposals to turn Katahdin and surrounding lands into a national park.
George B. Dorr also faced obstacles in preserving what became Acadia. Some Maine legislators attempted to revoke the nonprofit status of the Hancock County Trustees of Reservations, the group Dorr and others used to secure donations of land for protection. This convinced Dorr that federal protection was needed.
First designated as Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916, then as Lafayette National Park in 1919, Acadia National Park came into being in 1929. Some of today’s debate over creating another Maine national park around Baxter echoes some of the previous opposition, such as in 1937, when Percival Baxter helped kill a federal bill by political rival Brewster and Myron Avery of the Appalachian Trail Conference, to create a Maine Woods national park.
Supporters of Quimby’s proposal for a new national park recently shifted focus in the face of opposition, and now back a national monument, which can be designated by President Barack Obama, without having to go through Congress. But Congressman Bruce Poliquin, a Republican representing Maine’s 2nd District, just filed a bill, “Preserving State Rights Act,” to require a state’s governor and legislature to approve a national monument designation first.
70,000 visitors vs. more than 2 million a year – In Baxter, where about 70,000 people visit a year, roads aren’t paved, pets aren’t allowed, reservations are needed for day use parking, and there are no gift shops or restaurants. That’s in keeping with Percival Baxter’s wishes that the park “shall forever be kept and remain in the natural wild state.”
In Acadia, where visitation is expected to exceed 2.7 million this year, a paved road leads to the top of Cadillac, leashed pets are permitted on most hiking trails, parking lots are on a first-come first-served basis, and there are multiple gift shops and the Jordan Pond House. Acadia is in the midst of a long-term transportation planning process, to figure out ways to ease the congestion on roads, trails and atop Cadillac during peak times.
Despite the difference in visitation, both parks grapple with educating people about Leave No Trace® principles, and protecting the environment, particularly the fragile alpine summits. No matter the ultimate status of the proposed new Maine national park, all parks, national, state or local, face these same educational and conservation challenges as Acadia and Baxter.
Trying to protect the wilderness experience in the face of increased visitation was a common theme at a Northeast Alpine Stewardship Gathering last month, co-hosted by Baxter State Park, the Friends of Baxter State Park and the Waterman Fund. Among those in attendance were officials from Acadia and Elliotsville Plantation, Inc., the foundation that manages Katahdin Woods & Water Recreation Area.
High unemployment vs. millions in economic benefits from national park tourism – Closure of paper mills in the Millinocket area has led to double digit unemployment, but in nonbinding referenda this summer, voters of Medway and East Millinocket opposed the national park proposal by a 2-to-1 margin. Some cited concerns about federal intrusion, while others worried a park would bring the wrong kinds of jobs.
The National Park Service, which hasn’t taken a position on Quimby’s offer to donate land and a $40 million endowment, says tourism from Acadia and other national park units in Maine adds $221 million in economic benefits to the state.
On its Web page, Katahdin Woods & Water Recreation Area points to two 2012 economic impact studies, concluding “that creating a national park and adjacent national recreation area in the Katahdin region could have a profound, positive impact, creating new jobs and diversifying the economy without threatening existing industries.” Part of the up to 150,000 acres being offered to the US government is currently open for such activities as snowmobiling, canoeing, hiking, hunting, ATV use, mountain biking, fishing, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and wildlife viewing, as an early preview of what a national park and recreation area can provide, according to the Katahdin Woods & Water Recreation Area Web site.
However the national park proposal plays out, an all-volunteer nonprofit, Our Katahdin, formed in December 2014, is trying to spur economic and community development. It focuses on Main Street revitalization and what it calls the forest, recreation and digital economies, and has raised more than $50,000 so far to fund “small win” community projects, like bringing the Maine Outdoor Film Festival to the Katahdin area for the first time, and refurbishing the Millinocket Bandstand during the 2014 Christmas season.
Running to spur economy of Millinocket and Mount Desert Island
Whether a new Maine national park ever comes into being outside of Baxter, and whenever boom times may return to the local economy, connections between the Acadia and Baxter regions will always run deep.
For Gary Allen, founder of the Mount Desert Island Marathon who grew up on Great Cranberry Island with a view toward Acadia, it was only natural to use running to try to spur the economy of Millinocket, with its view toward Katahdin.
Within days of his posting on Facebook the inaugural Millinocket Marathon & Half, which begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12, more runners have signed up for the free race than did for the first-ever Boston Marathon, with 52 runners as of the writing of this blog post (18 ran the first Boston Marathon).
Our Katahdin and local businesses and residents have rolled out their welcome mats to runners and spectators, offering discounts or recommendations for places to eat, stay and shop. Allen, who has never been to downtown Millinocket, by coincidence drew the race route to start and finish at Veterans Park, where Santa will happen to be greeting children between noon and 4 p.m. the day of the race.
“Soooo with all the excitement and yes love I’m feeling from Millinocket (and from all of you!) I can say with a high degree of certainty that I’d love to create a full-blown, USATF-certified, amazing marathon for this town. This inaugural run could be the start of something really cool!! Who’s in?!” Allen writes on the Millinocket Marathon & Half Facebook page.
May the connections between the Acadia and Baxter regions continue to run ever more deeply. And may the shared history help provide some insights for the debate over the proposed new Maine national park.