(Photo by Jon Luoma)
(Photo by Jon Luoma)
“The first step will be signs, brochures and maps,” said Lucas St. Clair, the son of Roxanne Quimby, on Wednesday morning, when he called to say the president was declaring the 87,500 acres east of Baxter State Park as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Then he slipped and called it the proposed monument, and laughed.

“I’m so used to calling it the proposed monument, that it’s hard for me to take it in that it’s really happening,” said St. Clair.

It really is happening, after five years of concentrated effort. Tim Hudson, the new superintendent of the national monument, will open the doors to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument at the old State Farm building at 200 Penobscot Avenue on Millinocket’s main street by Thursday, August 25, 2016.

Hudson, a Bangor resident and a 49-year veteran of the National Park Service, will be joined by the new deputy superintendent, Christina Marts.

A second office will be temporarily located at the Lumberman’s Museum in Patten near what will be the north entrance to the national monument. 

The first order of business, according to St. Clair, will be installing National Park Service signs in Millinocket and on the Grindstone Road, and in Patten and Mount Chase. The Kathadin Woods and Waters National Monument is already established on the National Park Service website, nps.gov.

It’s big news. Not unexpected news, but big, with  the former boom town of Millinocket right at the heart of it all.

Sitting down to hold planning meetings with the locals and everyone else is the next step for the National Park Service, according to St. Clair.

I’m taking the story back to the streets of Millinocket, the former paper town where the controversy over the national monument had been most visible, to see what cards have already been played. It turns out, the locals haven’t been waiting for a national monument to save them, even as Superintendent Hudson opens the doors at the old State Farm building.

The story of change in this river town is moving into a new chapter. 

All of this was on my mind on June 1, a week and a half after canoeing 26 miles through what is now the national monument. I was back in Millinocket on a perfect evening for summer strolling. The trees on the village green were fully leafed out and the lilacs almost too strong as the flowers faded in the early summer heat.

I walked up to the locked gate in front of the old Great Northern Paper administration building at the top of Penobscot Avenue that overlooks the town and Mount Katahdin in the distance. The imposing  building belonged to those early, innovative years of the paper boom when a new wave of technology and the initiative of one man started the process that turned a farm on Millinocket Stream into Magic City, the site of the biggest paper production mill in the world.

It was easy to envision a science and research facility like the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park housed in this historic building, with laboratories for visiting scientists and students and probably enough room left over for a branch of the Northern Forest Center, a New Hampshire–based non-profit that works with communities like Millinocket to help them utilize forest resources in sustainable ways that keep money local — such as helping them establish community-owned forests that return revenue and value to the town and helping small forest-product manufacturers succeed.  

Not paper making, though. With five paper mills closing over the past two years in Maine, that day was done.

Down the block, I?crossed the Granite Street bridge over Millinocket Stream and wandered over into Little Italy, where indentured Italian workers lived in wigwam-style huts while building the Great Northern Paper mill at the end of the 19th century. They built a neighborhood on the same site. 

No children were out on June 1. No one was sitting on a porch with a cold drink. The footbridge that mill workers used to take between Little Italy and the large paper mill complex was gated and locked with a bulky chain.

Near the power station I climbed up on an unidentifiable cast-off from the industrial age and looked across Millinocket Stream to the old mill site. A couple of years earlier, I had been here watching heavy machinery methodically pound the mill to rubble when a guy pulled up in a battered pickup and parked facing the mill, radio on, cigarette dangling out the window. 

With just the two of us lined up at the fence watching the demo across the stream, joined by an old brown dog wandering out of the weeds, it seemed like we were a really thin audience watching an experimental film at a drive-in. The plot was weak, there was lots of atmosphere and it was hard to know exactly what it meant. Two years later, the mill building was a gravel lot and the only sounds were some bees buzzing in the honeysuckle and flatwater whooshing past in the deep stream, reminding me of that old country saying: You can’t step in the same river twice.

“I think we may have finally reached bottom,” said Jaime Renaud, owner of the Appalachian Trail Cafe on Penobscot Avenue, Millinocket’s main street. The 2016 summer season would turn out to be the worst business season for the cafe since she bought it, even while the number of visitors to the area appeared to be up, overall. 

“I got hired Monday morning

Downsized that afternoon

Overcome with grief that evening

Now I’m crazy as a loon

That town will make you crazy

Just give it a little time

You’ll be walking ’round in circles

Lookin’ for that country rhyme”

The John Prine-like craziness in the wake of the mill failures had gone on too long. Indications were that enough people in town were finally tired of walking around in circles.

Some of that craziness is unlikely to go away. The growing fight over federal public lands that has grown highly politicized since 2010 in the West, and to which Rep. Bruce Poliquin has aligned himself, is likely to continue to be a factor in Millinocket.

The June 1 meeting that Rep. Bruce Poliquin organized in East Millinocket to hear from local residents opposed to the national monument backfired. Poliquin had brought anti-park strongman Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah with him. The audience was local, as Poliquin had hoped, and the place was packed, but three quarters of the audience supported the national monument proposal. 

John Hafford, who grew up in northern Maine and runs Design Lab, a graphics, web design and marketing company in a newly refurbished brick building on Millinocket’s main street, told Poliquin he was missing the mark. 

“The times are changing and we have to change with them,” said Hafford. “Representative Poliquin, I don’t think this is helpful. We have been trying for years to tone down the rhetoric.”

“If you really want to know what’s going on in Millinocket, come down and we’ll sit down at the desk and you can listen to people who are trying to figure out how to come and work here. They are doing all sorts of things in all kinds of sectors and these people, a lot of them, have passion. They know this park could help.”

The crowd cheered.

Politicians tend to parachute into the Katahdin area towns to make statements to the fleet of journalists following them, then leave. An exception to that has been Senator Angus King, who initiated efforts to bring a federal economic development assessment team (EDAT) organized by the Department of Commerce to assess the forest products industry and help map out a practical path forward. The EDAT teams typically deploy to areas hard-hit by disaster. In this case, the continuing mill closures qualified. Federal partners include representatives from the Departments of Treasury, EPA, Agriculture, Transportation and Energy, and the Small Business Administration, who teamed up with state-based non-profits. State officials chose not to participate. The non-profit Maine Development Foundation will shepherd the process forward. The first report is due out in September.

Millinocket is one of their target areas.

In a town as small as Millinocket, though, one person could make a difference and Millinocket has more than one person trying. Hafford was right. There was plenty of local passion, and it was starting to push change forward on Millinocket’s main street.

The Design Lab, looking as crisp as a Rockland art gallery, was the  first business on the street to hook into the high-speed broadband internet cable that runs through town. Hafford and his wife and business partner, Jessica Masse, had done it to further their own business and to encourage others to hook into the fast internet speeds.

Up the street, the owner of several buildings in town just tore down the old Katahdin News building and is getting ready to renovate the brick building next to it.

The long-abandoned Miller’s Department Store across the street was changing too. Our Katahdin, an all-volunteer economic development group, was in the process of buying the building from the town for $2,000 and expects to raise funds for the restoration replacement of the building through small personal investments and grants. Once the building project is under way, Our Katahdin will approach retail business owners to buy it. They believe a refurbished Miller’s building could attract a business that could anchor the main street and bring more business in.

“We may have to tear it down and build new,” said Nancy DeWitt of Our Katahdin. “We would like to keep the building, if we can.” 

Further down the street, the owners of Maine Heritage Timber and New England Outdoor Center (NEOC) teamed up to buy and rehabilitate another building, which will have office and retail space for local specialty wood products.

Katahdin Area Trails, a non-profit affiliate to NEOC, just launched in the Millinocket area, too, and hired 11 people seasonally to build trails on conservation land, with wages in the $10-to-$18-an-hour range, plus room and board.

While Jaime Renaud’s Appalachian Trail Cafe was in the retail doldrums at one end of the street, business was up 25 percent over the previous July at the A.T. Lodge, run by her husband Paul, at the other end of the street. 

Marsha Donahue, who owns North Light Gallery at the corner, said it wasn’t that visitors weren’t going through Millinocket this summer. She agreed with Jaime Renaud. Visitors didn’t see anything worth stopping for.

She was optimistic that that was about to change.

“I see enough energy to move things forward,” said Donahue. With the announcment of the national monument, she expects to see them as soon as next summer.

Clearly townspeople in the Katahdin region will want to be in the main street office talking to Hudson and Marks as soon as the Katahdin?Woods and Waters National Monument doors open. The new model at the National Park Service is public-private partnerships, and the $40 million in private donations offered by Quimby, along with the land, will fast-track the establishment of the national monument, said Jarvis. This new era of funding and management partnerships also should mean more active oversight of the National Park Service, and that can only be a good thing for an agency that has a tight-knit internal work culture and a tendency to circle the wagons when things go wrong.

In fact, there could probably not be a better time to establish a new national park or monument than right now, while the centennial has focused attention not just on the National Parks but on the agency that oversees them — a focus that has led to internal soul searching at the agency and more scrutiny from outside, with both leading to promised reforms at the National Park Service.

Clearly, the need for reform is real, well documented and long overdue — and finally acknowledged by the National Park Service itself and by the head of the Department of the Interior.

Sexual harassment in the Grand Canyon river program, for example, is turning out not to be an isolated incident, according to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, who heads the department that oversees the National Park Service. And it isn’t mild, either. A culture of intimidation appears to have developed as a result of the failure of higher-level staff to address problems, particularly at the more remote park areas. An agency-wide review is under way.

Employees have also complained for years of a culture of careerism at the agency, wherein some park administrators are more concerned with moving up to higher-level positions than caretaking the natural and cultural resources they oversee. This has been fostered, in part, because increasing the number of visitors is rewarded by the agency.

A stark example of the consequences of this approach, combined with a lack of oversight, was finally officially analyzed in a July 16, 2016, National Park Service report on Effigy Mounds National Monument that confirms earlier reports that 200 Native American graves at the monument (and for which the site was designated — some of the burial mounds, which are shaped like bears and other animals, date back 2,000 years) were dug up during 78 construction projects over the course of 11 years. The  park superintendent and the maintenance supervisor spent over $3.3 million building bridges, trails and boardwalks, while knowingly ignoring four separate laws for handling cultural objects, historical sites and Native American remains. They did not communicate with the tribes whose ancestors were buried there and ignored concerns raised by lower-level staff.

This went on from 1999 to 2010, indicating a failure of oversight by the Midwest Region that was due, in part, to lack of appropriately trained regional management staff, according to the NPS report. Weaknesses in oversight at Effigy Mounds were indicative of a lack of a clear chain of responsibility and accountability regarding cultural resources that went all the way up to the top levels of the agency.

Just as troubling, when the violations where first brought to light, the investigation conducted by the National Park Service was buried and the agency closed ranks. The Friends of Effigy Mounds and PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) filed a Freedom of Information Act request. It took eight months for the 723-page investigation to be released.

Looking back even further, the former superintendent of Effigy Mounds took bones home and kept them in his cellar. After several decades, the bones have been returned to the tribes and he has since been held criminally accountable.

The attention on the agency this centennial year has not just brought media coverage about new programs, favorite hikes, beautiful places and crowded parks; it has brought a new transparency to the National Park Service that can only be a good thing for the agency charged with caring for America’s national treasures. Still it is the locals on the ground who are really the ones who can hold the agency to their promises of change.

There could not be a better time for the locals in the Katahdin area to be right there in the mix, as soon as the office doors open on main street.

The Fight Over National Parks and Public Lands Will Continue — 

Powerful Anti-Park Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah)  came to the Katahdin area to hear the local view on the proposed national monument at the invitation of Rep. Bruce Poliquin in June. The head of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Bishop told reporters he was open-minded about federal public lands, if they were authorized by Congress. He is vociferously opposed to the president’s authority to establish national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act. 

In fact, Bishop is the head of the ultra-conservative Anti-Park Caucus, which is made up of 20 Tea Party legislators who openly advocate for selling off public lands. In May, Bishop slipped a provision into the Puerto Rico economic restructuring bill that would have privatized the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge,  which is among the top five visited national refuges in the U.S. It was later stripped out. 

Bishop co-founded FLAG (Federal Lands Action Group) in 2015. The group advocates turning federal public lands over to the states. While national parks and public lands rate high in popularity among the American public in poll after poll, the anti-park legislators are making political progress in eleven states. They are fueled in part by oil and gas interests. 

Bishop’s largest campaign donors in the recent past have been from the oil and gas industries.

To read Parts 1 through 5 of our Maine Woods National Monument series by Christine Parrish, which began on July 21, click here. Also see her Magic City in the Wilderness series, which began in 2014, about the Millinocket area by clicking here.