President Barack Obama created a new national monument on Wednesday, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The monument was created on 87,000 acres of Maine wilderness donated by conservationist Roxanne Quimby, who founded the health company Burt’s Bees.
The Katahdin Woods and Waters monument includes the East Branch of the Penobscot River and stunning views of Maine’s tallest mountain, Katahdin (kuh-TAH-din). The land is cherished by Native Americans, and its history includes visits by naturalist Henry David Thoreau and President Theodore Roosevelt.
“Through this incredibly generous private gift for conservation, these lands will remain accessible to current and future generations of Americans, ensuring the rich history of Mainers’ hunting, fishing and recreation heritage will forever be preserved,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.
Supporters say the move will create hundreds of jobs in a region hurt by the closing of paper mills in nearby towns. But critics fear that it will hinder efforts to rebuild a forest-based economy in Maine’s North Woods.
This spring, Maine’s legislature passed a symbolic bill saying it didn’t consent to federal ownership of the land. Republican Governor Paul LePage also opposed the ownership, calling it an “ego play.”
Quimby’s son, Lucas St. Clair, who has advocated for the monument’s creation in recent years, brushed aside such criticism Wednesday.
“Many parks over the history of the park system have been criticized upon creation,” St. Clair said. “But when we look to the future, we see huge amounts of success.”
The land occupies a wild sprawl east of Baxter State Park where Thoreau rode in a flat-bottomed boat and where Roosevelt hiked Katahdin in moccasins after losing a boot while crossing the turbulent Wassataquoik Stream.
It is teeming with wildlife: moose, black bears, coyotes, deer, bobcats, snowshoe hares, fisher cats, bald eagles and Canada lynx.
Although the monument status is supported by numerous conservation organizations, independent Senator Angus King, Republican Senator Susan Collins and Republican Representative Bruce Poliquin wrote a letter to Obama last fall outlining “serious reservations” about the proposal.
King’s position evolved, however, and he said the federal designation “will provide much-needed diversity to the region’s economy.” Poliquin said Wednesday that public officials needed to ensure local input was taken into consideration while figuring out how to manage the new federal land.
Quimby began buying the timberland in the 1990s with earnings from the Burt’s Bees line of natural care products.
She initially aimed for a national park designation, but that would have required an act of Congress. The national monument designation required only executive action by the president.
Many national parks, including Maine’s Acadia National Park and the Grand Canyon National Park, started with monument status.
Deeds to the land allow snowmobiling and hunting, and also allow the creation of recreational trail corridors, kiosks and signs.
Obama has utilized his power under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect more land and water using national monument designations than any other president.
The new national monument became the 413th park unit in the national park system a day before the park service’s 100th anniversary Thursday.
“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the centennial and underscore our mission,” said park service director Jonathan Jarvis, “than by adding this extraordinary piece of Maine’s North Woods to the National Park System.”