In August 2016, during the week celebrating the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, former President Barack Obama designated the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, an 87,500-acre parcel encompassing the Penobscot River’s East Branch and a portion of Maine’s North Woods. The designation came despite emphatic opposition from neighboring towns and state officials.
Through executive order, Obama designated the monument after notable Maine businesswoman Roxanne Quimby donated 70,000 acres of land east of Baxter State Park to the federal government. Quimby and her son, Lucas St. Clair, through a private foundation called Elliotsville Plantation Inc., had been acquiring lands for preservation in the North Woods since 2002. By 2007, Quimby had spent $39 million to purchase roughly 80,000 acres of land in northern Maine.
Quimby’s first proposal for a new Maine landmark came in 2011 when she began pitching the idea of a national park in surrounding municipalities. Her plan was to create a second national park in Maine, one twice the size of Acadia National Park, in the North Woods using land she was willing to donate to the federal government. However, the Millinocket Town Council strongly opposed the measure, and in July 2011 voted 6-0 against Quimby’s proposal.
This was the commencement of local opposition Quimby would encounter and ignore leading up to Obama’s designation.
Facing an uphill battle in getting a new national park approved, Quimby revised her proposal to include a national monument rather than a park. This change was made because presidents, through executive order, can designate national monuments without congressional approval. National parks, however, can only be established with the consent of Congress.
Moving forward with a new foundation, Quimby began lobbying her brainchild to the Obama administration while neighboring towns, and the Maine Legislature, lined up against her.
In March 2016, the Maine House voted 77-71 in favor of a bill opposing the creation of a national monument in the Katahdin region. A month later in April, the Maine Senate voted 18-17 in favor of the same bill.
Several towns abutting the designated monument spoke out as well. In June 2016, both East Millinocket and Medway residents voted against the creation of a monument, with East Millinocket voting 320-191 and Medway voting 252-102. In April of the same year, the town of Patten voted against the monument 121-53.
Unfortunately for these locals, Quimby’s money muted their voices and Obama moved forward with the designation.
However, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on April 26 calling for a review of 27 national projects approved by Obama, including the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. The Department of the Interior announced on May 5 these projects are under review for potentially being created “without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.” It is unclear how the department will rule in regard to Maine’s new monument.
In the midst of review, Quimby and other monument proponents have boosted their efforts to retain the designation, including the drafting of a fake letter sent to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on May 3 that found its way into the hands of the Bangor Daily News (BDN), who did little homework before printing their partisan report.
On May 10, the BDN published an article titled “Former critics sign letter asking to preserve Maine monument.” There’s just one problem – nobody actually signed the letter.
The one-page letter distributed by the town of Patten’s former Chair of the Board of Selectmen, Richard H. Schmidt III, was sent without the consent of at least two officials who allegedly signed on in favor of the monument. Included as signees were Reginald Porter Sr., current Chair of the Board of Selectmen in Patten, and James Dill, District 5 State Senator. Both officials denied giving Schmidt consent to be included in the letter.
Porter, the letter’s third alleged signee, has always objected the monument and doesn’t shy from showing his opposition.
“I’ve always been against the monument,” Porter said. “I still have my ‘No Monument’ sign up next to my garage.”
Porter is troubled his name and title were included in the letter after Patten’s Board of Selectmen informally agreed to abstain from taking a political stance on the monument. This decision was made after Patten residents vehemently opposed the monument at the ballot box in April 2016.
He also disapproved of Quimby’s decision to move forward with the plan after receiving pushback from locals. When Quimby began buying up lands in Northern Maine, Porter and other sportsmen lost out on decades-old hunting grounds. Dozens of camp owners were also ousted after Quimby declined to renew their lease.
“What she did to them was terrible,” Porter said.
Porter says, despite opposing the monument, it is here to stay, meaning he and his colleagues on the Board of Selectmen in Patten must do everything they can to help local businesses capitalize on the economic opportunities the monument enables.
Dill was an original opponent of the monument and the lone Democratic senator to vote against it in 2016. However, Dill has changed his stance since Obama designated the monument, citing investments made in surrounding communities as a step forward in revitalizing the Katahdin region.
Dill signed on a similar letter in favor of the monument on May 8 addressed to President Trump, but has no recollection of communicating with Schmidt or granting consent to be included in the letter sent to the Department of the Interior on May 3.
“One could surmise that I’m now in favor of the monument, but I was never contacted by Schmidt about this letter,” Dill said. “This letter was sent on May 3, and I didn’t sign on to the letter to President Trump until May 8.”
In reality, no one actually signed the letter sent to Secretary Zinke on May 3. Schmidt, Porter and Dill’s names and titles are all merely printed at the end of the document, along with several other local officials who serve in the Katahdin region. This gives the appearance that Schmidt attached these officials’ names and titles to the letter without obtaining consent from every signee.
“[Schmidt] used our titles improperly,” Porter said. “When he put our names and official titles on that letter, it made us look like we support the monument as representatives of the town of Patten. But the town doesn’t back the monument.”
In its original reporting, BDN quoted Schmidt saying, “I know that there are people who have signed it who were not in favor of the monument. The biggest thing is that the majority of our board chose to sign the letter. That speaks volumes.”
In the most literal sense, this is true. There are people that “signed” the letter who are not in favor of the monument. Unfortunately, this is because the letter was circulated without the consent of every signee. Additionally, considering Porter is one of three selectmen to have allegedly signed (and one of five selectmen in Patten), the second half of Schmidt’s quote is false, as the majority of Patten’s Board of Selectmen did not choose to sign the letter.
Predictably, when Patten recently selected its new Chair of the Board of Selectmen, former chair Schmidt failed to receive nomination.
Correction: Dill was contacted by Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine to appear in the letter. The NRCM circulated the letter on Schmidt’s behalf.