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Obama creates what could be the last large national park site on the East Coast, in Maine

Lucas St. Clair stands at Orin Falls in Maine’s North Woods this spring. More than 87,000 acres of land, donated by his mother, will become a new national monument managed by the National Park Service. (Yoon S. Byun)

President Obama designated a large swath of Maine’s North Woods as a new national monument Wednesday, creating what is likely to be the last large new national park ever established on the East Coast.

In a statement, the White House said the move aimed to honor the National Park Service’s centennial, which will take place Thursday. The move occurred almost exactly 100 years after President Woodrow Wilson established Sieur de Monts National Monument, which eventually became Maine’s sole existing national park, Acadia.

“Following years of support from many local and state elected officials, tribal leaders, businesses and members of the public across the state, this designation will build on the robust tradition of growing the park system through private philanthropy, and will reinforce the need to continue protecting our great outdoors as we enter the second century of the National Park Service,” the statement said.

National Parks turn 100, and they’re showing their age

The designation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument marks the culmination of a long, bitter struggle over the land’s fate. For more than a decade, Roxanne Quimby — the wealthy, polarizing co-founder of Burt’s Bees — tried to give away the area to the government to create a new national park.

“It may be one of the last, large national parks that we see in our lifetime,” said Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of the National Parks Conservation Association in an interview Wednesday, adding that in a few years, “We’ll look back and say, ‘We can’t ever imagine why this was a controversy.’”

Still, some Republicans criticized Obama’s decision to protect the area without waiting for congressional approval, which is required to designate a national park. Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage (R) said it  “demonstrates that rich, out-of-state liberals can force their unpopular agenda on the Maine people against their will.”

Quimby’s son, Lucas St. Clair, who took over the public campaign for protection in late 2011, said he was  “thrilled beyond words” when he was officially notified Wednesday the president had signed the monument declaration. The designation “started with my mom’s vision back in the 1990s, when she was thinking how she could give back to the state of Maine” for being the birthplace of Burt’s Bees.

“It means there’s a slice of the northern forest that could remain intact for perpetuity,” he added.

By donating land worth $60 million, along with the facilities her family foundation has already built, an endowment of $20 million for operations and maintenance and a pledge to raise another $20 million, Quimby is effectively providing the government with a $100 million gift.

But residents in towns near the proposed parkland voted against its creation. The governor and legislature opposed it, and Maine’s congressional delegation refused to introduce the measure necessary to create a national park, which requires an act of Congress.

The National Park Service turns 100. Go on a video journey that includes bears. And a moose. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

New Maine park is a multi-million dollar gift wrapped up in distrust

That left only the prospect of the president using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare the land a national monument — something he has done nearly two dozen times while in office. He added to that list on Wednesday, in a move that creates the nation’s 413th national park site.

One of the last sprawling wild areas in the East, the 87,500 acre area along the east branch of the Penobscot River is home to lynx, bears, brook trout and moose, and it is one of the only places on the East Coast where rare bird species like gray jays, boreal chickadees and the American three-toed woodpecker can be spotted.

However, Quimby’s personality and relentless push for a national park divided this battered corner of New England, where shuttered paper mills have led to crippling unemployment and a shrinking population, and where distrust of the federal government runs deep.

St. Clair returned to his native Maine and took a more conciliatory approach, determined to win over locals. He restored public access to tens of thousands of acres east of the Penobscot River and vowed to keep them as a recreation area for hunting, snowmobiling and fishing, even if a national park or monument were next door. He built an 18-mile loop road around the proposed park, along with camping areas and hiking trails, and invited the public to come see it for themselves.

It will be the only National Park Service national monument that allows hunting, though not of bears, because Quimby’s family foundation put a specific provision for that activity in the deed it transferred to the federal government on Tuesday. It will also allow snowmobiling on all its existing trails, which means more than half the site will be open to the winter sport.

However no logging, except for tree removal the Park Service conducts for conservation or safety purposes, will be permitted.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who is on a fact-finding mission in Greenland, issued a statement saying some of the concessions the Quimby family made to preserve traditional recreation activities means “the benefits of the designation will far outweigh any detriment and – on balance – will be a significant benefit to Maine and the region.”

And Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine), who represents the area, said in a statement that while “opposed to a unilateral decision, ignoring the votes in the local towns, the Maine Legislature, and Congress, I will continue to work with everyone to move this project forward in the right way in order to build a stronger economy that creates more and better paying jobs in the Katahdin Region and in Maine.”

Some local residents said they still see commercial logging as the best way to revive the region’s sagging economy, but proponents of the monument said the boost in tourism would ultimately yield greater economic benefits. At this point only a few thousand people visit the site, but that number is likely to increase now that it’s received presidential recognition.

What does that National Park Service consider a national park?

The move by Quimby’s nonprofit, Elliotsville Plantation, comes at a time when the National Park Service faces an operations and maintenance backlog of $12 billion. The National Park Foundation has pledged to raise $350 million as part it its Centennial Campaign for America’s National Parks, and with this latest gift it has gotten more than $300 million toward reaching its goal.

As part of his effort to “reset” the conversation with residents, Maine’s congressional delegation and the White House, St. Clair also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a public relations agency and a Washington lobbying firm. He commissioned economic studies detailing how other communities had benefited from proximity to national parks and cited poll findings that two-thirds of residents in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers much of the state, would support a North Woods park.

But unable to persuade members of Maine’s congressional delegation to introduce park legislation, St. Clair altered the family’s strategy and began trying to convince the Obama administration to designate the land a national monument.

He repeatedly noted that other national parks had similar beginnings. Acadia began as Sieur de Monts National Monument. Grand Canyon National Park began as a monument designated by President Theodore Roosevelt. The creation of the modern Grand Teton National Park involved decades of bitter controversy over John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s efforts to donate thousands of acres to the project, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt first designating that land a national monument.

St. Clair also met anyone who would listen, assuring them that the government had no plans to use eminent domain or impose air quality standards or buffer zones that would hurt the forestry industry. He noted that when he started his outreach campaign, “No one really wanted to speak publicly about it.”

He made headway. The Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce endorsed the proposal. The Bangor Daily News backed it, saying the “region needs new life.” Polls showed broad support in much of Maine for a national monument in the North Woods, despite the outspoken local opposition.

“I was meeting with people behind the grocery store and behind the gas station, having hushed conversations,” St. Clair said, noting that after a recent town hall federal officials received 400 positive comments and 12 negative ones. “Today we have people who are extremely excited.”

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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING - JULY 20: on July 20, 2014 in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

In May, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis came to the area for a series of hearings about the proposed monument. He got an earful during a day that included an angry crowd in East Millinocket and a more supportive crowd at a university auditorium in Orono.

What he heard ran the gamut from what a great idea the proposed national monument would be to what a detriment it would be to local residents. He heard the government praised as a savior for the local economy and criticized as a land-hungry force that could harm the timber industry and alter the Maine way of life, while providing only a paltry number of seasonal jobs.

During his visit, Jarvis told people that while he hadn’t yet decided on his recommendation to higher ups in Washington, the Quimby land “is absolutely worthy,” and the $40 million endowment promised by the family would be invaluable for getting it ready for the public.

“We have no representation anywhere in the national park system like the forests and lakes of northern Maine,” Jarvis said during one of the public hearings.

“What in blazes are they trying to monumentalize?” Anne Mitchell of the Maine Woods Coalition told The Post this spring. “There’s nothing extraordinary about it, except for a lot of black flies.”

“Dirtbag Diaries” host Fitz Cahall has visited most of the country’s national parks. However, one in his back yard eluded him, until now. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

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