What Zinke should learn from his visit to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a congressional hearing that he was looking forward to canoeing during his trip to Maine this week, as part of his review of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Like millions of future visitors to Maine’s newest attraction, Zinke is about to learn why Maine’s outdoor heritage has captured the imagination of visitors since the days of Henry David Thoreau.

It certainly captured mine.

I first came to Maine 24 years ago from the bustling suburbs of Washington, D.C. on a lark. My friends were spending the month of August raking blueberries and camping in tents before they headed back to school. I took a bus to Maine to join them after a wild adventure hitchhiking across the country. From the moment I got off the bus in Bangor, I was in love with this state. The air was clearer, the people kinder, the pace slower, and the relationship between human beings and their natural surroundings seemed strangely reasonable.

My friends left at the end of the summer, but I decided to stay. I was in love with this place, and I wasn’t going anywhere. The rest of the world was going to hell in a handbasket, but somehow Maine had survived the rolling maelstrom of progress, maintaining its integrity and balance. For me then, and now more than two decades later, Maine is a respite.

Lucas St. Clair looks toward Mt. Katahdin at a lookout in what is now the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Millions of visitors get a taste of this every summer when they pack Route 1 and witness the remarkable beauty of the Maine coast. But this is only part of the picture. What our bumbling governor pejoratively referred to as “the mosquito area,” and what most outside of our state have only caught a glimpse of through the covers of L.L. Bean catalogs, is a timeless, serene inland wilderness that is as much a part of our culture and character as any lighthouse or lobster trap.

The average American pictures Bar Harbor when they think of Maine long before they picture Millinocket. This is a shame, both for the economy of inland Maine and because this amazing part of our state remains largely unknown to the rest of the world.

That’s why the creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is such a positive development.

At no cost to Maine taxpayers, a private donation of more than 87,000 acres of pristine wilderness in northern Penobscot County has been designated as a national monument. This means we have a viable tourism resource for a part of the state that hasn’t seen much positive economic development in a long, long time. The monument has also been endowed with $40 million of privately-donated money to help maintain the park.

This is a windfall for Maine. We get to preserve this majestic natural resource for perpetuity, while simultaneously boosting the economy of rural Maine through an influx of tourism and an overall feeling of optimism that is driving investment and business growth already.

Unfortunately, Gov. Paul LePage has found a way to cast a shadow over things. Despite the fact that this was a donation of privately-owned land, a sacrosanct pillar of conservative dogma, the governor wants the federal government to step in and repeal the land’s monument designation. A so-called fiscal conservative, LePage wants to throw away a $40 million endowment and a priceless economic driver for rural Maine.

The governor’s position on the monument is ill-conceived, at odds with his alleged Republican ideology, driven by tribal malice and fueled by deep-seated paranoia about the role of the federal government in our state. Nevermind that the federal government already accounts for a massive amount of our overall economic activity through Medicare and Medicaid, defense contracting, and infrastructure spending. To LePage, a benign role in maintaining a park symbolizes some kind of federal oppression.

Or something like that. Who knows what this guy is thinking anymore.

Thankfully, Zinke is coming here himself to see the Katahdin Woods and Waters monument, instead of relying on LePage’s nonsensical position.

Zinke will get to see first-hand why Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree have called publicly for the monument to retain its designation. He’ll hear from local businesspeople who see a lifeline through the monument, and he’ll sense the pride in all of us as one of our most precious resources is unveiled to the rest of the nation.

Zinke, perhaps more than most, has the life perspective to understand the value of the Katahdin Woods and Waters monument. He grew up close to Glacier National Park in Montana, and surely knows both the cultural and economic importance of preserving these amazing places for future generations.

When he’s canoeing here this week, he’ll get to feel the cool water of the East Branch of the Penobscot River, breathe that pure air, and hear the serene silence that has moved people deeply for nearly two centuries.

For many people, myself included, that experience can been life-changing. Here’s hoping Zinke’s experience is similarly profound, and that he sees for himself that this land is a treasure that deserves to be preserved and shared with our entire nation.   

Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.