Sunday, September 18, 2016

254. The Katahdin National Monument: How Nonprofits Get Things Done

         This is a Maine story, but for me it began here in New York, and it offers a lesson for us all – a lesson in how to get things done.  On June 7 of this year I attended a small gathering of Wilderness Society supporters in an apartment on Central Park West with windows offering a fine view of Central Park just across the street.  After a few snacks and some chitchat, a Wilderness staff member unfolded a large map and briefed us on a longstanding campaign to create a national monument in northern Maine that would protect thousands of acres of land in Penobscot County, on the east side of Baxter State Park.  Back in 2001 Roxanne Quimby, the cofounder of Burt’s Bees, a maker of personal care products that is now a subsidiary of Clorox, began quietly buying up land in the area with the intention of donating it to the government for the creation of a new national park.  In 2011, having acquired thousands of acres, she announced her intention, and that’s when trouble began.

         This area of Maine has long been economically depressed.  Paper mills once flourished there, but with a steady decline in demand for paper, one by one they closed, leaving their workers jobless.  As people left the region for better opportunities elsewhere, the population of Millinocket and nearby East Millinocket went down dramatically.  You might think that this would make the local population eager for a national park, which would attract visitors and help local businesses, but the residents have long resented any interference in their affairs by the federal government, and nurse a deep suspicion of “outsiders,” which for them includes not only out-of-state do-gooders, but even people from other parts of Maine. 

         Obviously, Ms. Quimby’s proposal could not have found a less receptive audience, as was soon evidenced by the opposition of state and local politicians.  The solution that she finally accepted: instead of a national park, which would require Congressional action not likely to be forthcoming at this time, create a national monument.  For me, “national monument” suggests structures of historical and cultural significance like the presidential memorials in Washington, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and the Statue of Liberty.  But no, a national monument can be a tract of land as well, and under the Antiquities Act of 1906, enacted during the Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, it can be created by presidential proclamation, without action by Congress.  There are many national monuments in the West, but relatively few in the East.  And this one would seem to resolve the situation in Maine.

         But it didn’t, because there was still vociferous opposition.  Leading the attack was newly elected Governor Paul LePage, a Republican and no friend of the environment, who, to judge by a recent series of articles in the New York Times, is Maine’s own homegrown Donald Trump, and just as controversial.  The monument, he declared, was “unilateral action against the will of the people, this time the citizens of rural Maine.”

         The Wilderness Society, along with other organizations, now became involved in the campaign to establish the proposed national monument.  It was doing this, the staff member at the gathering explained, by following three rules: (1) keep a low profile; (2) get local support; and (3) be patient.

         Keep a low profile.  Given the local suspicion of interfering outsiders, the worst thing you could do would be to go in banners flying, proclaiming yourself the Wilderness Society or some other alien entity.  Instead, be modest, be discreet.  Get to know the locals, blend in as much as you can, allay their suspicions, try to gain their trust.

         Get local support.  Even if the monument can be created by presidential fiat, this is crucial.  Explain patiently how the monument can benefit the community.  Yes, much land will be protected, but there will also be a large recreation area open to hunting and snowmobiling, and this will create jobs and help local businesses.  Hold public meetings to inform the public, get the local press behind you, enlist the support of local organizations, and get the backing – absolutely essential -- of at least one influential local politician.

         Be patient.  Yes, this will take time, and there will be setbacks.  But keep with it.  You have a good story to tell, and it will slowly win people over.

         And win people over they did.  In 2013, economics studies were released, showing that the proposed park and recreation area would create between 450 and a thousand jobs.  Supporters of the proposal held hundreds of one-on-one meetings with local residents to explain the benefits that would result.  In January 2015 Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation endorsed the proposal, which was subsequently also endorsed by the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club, the Maine Innkeepers Association, and the Bangor Daily News.  In April 2015 a poll showed that 67% of residents of Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes all of Maine except a small coastal area in the south, were in favor of the proposal.  At a public meeting in May 2016 at the University of Maine in Orono, out of 1400 attending, 1200 people from every part of Maine supported the monument proposal.

         Support continued to gather momentum.  In June 2016, at a Congressional Field Hearing in East Millinocket sponsored by Representative Bruce Poliquin, a Republican representing the 2nd Congressional District, Katahdin residents voiced support 4 to 1.  In July, 52 elected Maine officials sent a letter to President Obama urging him to create the monument.  By now, Roxanne Quimby was out of the picture, letting her foundation, Elliotsville Plantation, act for her in transferring 87,000 acres of land to the nation on August 12, 2016.  And on August 24, the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service, President Obama proclaimed this land the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which would in fact be managed by the National Park Service.  After a long struggle in which the Wilderness Society and other “outsiders” were rarely in evidence, the war was won.

         Katahdin: Though I know only coastal Maine and have never visited the interior, this name has always fascinated me, for Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine, is where the Appalachian Trail ends, and I have a dream of hiking the entire length of it – all 2,160 miles -- from Springer Mountain in Georgia to its terminal on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine, a trip that would begin in the spring, trudge on through the summer, and end in chilly autumn.  A dream to be realized not in this life, to be sure, but in my next one.  (On second thought, I may only hike a stretch of it, since otherwise you have to live on dehydrated portable food most of the way, let your hair grow wild, and do without a bath.  Veteran hikers advise you not to look in a mirror while on the trail.) 

         And what is in the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument?  One of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in the eastern United States, with surging rivers and streams, thick woods, high mountains, and rutted roads where only high-clearance vehicles can safely drive.  There are wide-ranging species such as the black bear, moose, Canada lynx, white-tailed deer, American marten, bobcat, and snowshoe hare, as well as the Atlantic salmon in the rivers, and rare bird species like the boreal chickadee, gray jay, ruffed grouse, and American three-toed woodpecker – all species that I,  a longtime birdwatcher, have never seen.  It’s rugged backcountry with minimal facilities, but if you want unspoiled nature, here it is on the grand scale, with opportunities for hiking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling on designated trails, and hunting on lands east of the east branch of the Penobscot River.

         And Governor LePage’s reaction to the creation of this protected wonderland?  “This once again demonstrates that rich, out-of-state liberals can force their unpopular agenda on the Maine people against their will.”  He also insists that this is one way to avoid paying taxes to the state of Maine, and calls it an “ego play” both for Roxanne Quimby, who has distanced herself from the campaign for the monument, and for Senator Angus King, the junior senator from Maine and a political independent, who has supported the campaign.  The governor has also boasted, “I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”  No doubt he was.

         Teddy Roosevelt created 18 national monuments; Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Papa Bush, none; Baby Bush 6; and Obama an impressive 23, including the Stonewall Inn in the West Village, where the gay rights movement began.  The fight to protected our endangered wildernesses and cultural sites has had some victories, but the campaign goes on … and on and on.  How could it not?

         The Hudson Yards “Vessel”:  Renderings have been officially unveiled for a 15-story “Vessel” to adorn a five-acre plaza and public garden that are a part of the Hudson Yards, a large-scale redevelopment project on the Far West Side of Manhattan where sky-stabbing high rises are going to  sprout like mushrooms.  “You can’t be small in New York,” one commentator has commented, and the “Vessel,” though no sky-stabber, ain’t small.  “Big, bold, and basket-shaped,” as the New York Times describes it, it will rise 15 stories high, weigh 600 tons, and contain 2500 climbable steps.  (Yes, that’s right: 2500.)  To my eye, the rendering suggests a stack of giant red pretzels looming up above a quiet tree-filled plaza.  2500 steps leading to what?  Nothing, so far as I can tell, but that’s not right, since there will be a fine view of the area and, for the less hardy, elevators to the top.  This monument – if monument it is – is the creation of the controversial British designer Thomas Heatherwick, and is financed, to the tune of over $150 million, by the American billionaire Stephen M. Ross, whose Related Companies is developing the Hudson Yards.  A gift to the city, the “Vessel” was commissioned and approved by a committee of one: Mr. Ross.
         The bronzed-steel and concrete pieces of the “Vessel” won’t, alas, be made in the U.S.A., since they are currently under construction in Italy, scheduled for assembly here next year.  The design was presented to the public on Wednesday, September 14, in a spectacle featuring an athletic  performance by the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, watched by a crowd of hundreds that included Mayor Bill de Blasio.  Hizzoner predicts that the “Vessel” will be hotly debated by New Yorkers, with a hundred opinions from a hundred citizens.
         “New Yorkers have a fitness thing,” the designer Mr. Heatherwick has observed, anticipating that his climbable creation will give us a good workout.  And his patron, Mr. Ross, wants the “Vessel” to attract multitudes to the Hudson Yards and make them, in spite of their hard-to-reach location, the center of New York.  “I’m just itching to see a thousand people on it,” says Mr. Heatherwick, who assures us that his stack of steel and concrete pretzels, rising from a base only 50 feet in diameter, can withstand another  Hurricane Sandy.  Maybe so, but I for one don’t plan to be on board when the next big wind occurs.  As for an aesthetic appreciation, I’ll wait until I see the thing in the steel and concrete flesh.  But, appropriately for the Empire City, Messrs. Heatherwick and Ross do think big.

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          My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

          My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

         Coming soon:  The Jefferson Market Library, my beloved branch library, where a notorious abortionist, a murderer of ill repute, and Mae West all once set foot, but they weren’t there for books.

         ©   2016   Clifford Browder



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