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Cynthia Dill

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Uncle Sam Is Maine Woods' B.F.F.

Posted: 12/12/11 03:59 PM ET

Being "anti-government" is hip these days. But facts often get in the way of ideology -- and economic progress.

Rural Maine needs jobs, desperately. In the north woods, where unemployment was 20.4% in September, timber wages and head count have collapsed, and supporters of the timber industry resist virtually all other proposals for development -- public or private.

To some, this corner of the Pine Tree State is self-sufficient and doing fine. Rugged individualism, hard work and the free market provide rich and prosperous opportunities for their families and kids. People "from away" or the government have nothing to add to the debate. We just need to get out of the timber industry's way, so it can rise to its former glory.

It's actually a bit surprising when some say the Maine Woods National Park threatens a "government takeover" of the forest. Because while there are many Friends of the Maine Woods these days, the truth is there have been few friends more faithful to locals than Uncle Sam.

Last year, the government took over a polluted landfill so the buyer of a shuttered paper mill in East Millinocket could close the deal to reopen it. Voila: Within a week, 215 went people back to work, many accepting contracts that made them the state's lowest-paid papermakers at about $11 an hour, while host towns agreed to drastically reduce the mill's property tax.

Then, Uncle Sam gave the new company an early holiday loan of $1 million so it could pay its personal property tax, and reduced its overall property tax bill.

For Christmas, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and Governor LePage -- both Republicans who oppose the park -- asked good old Uncle Sam to build a natural gas pipeline and railroad track to the Millinocket area, underscoring the importance of government subsidies needed to keep the timber industry viable.

Another $25 million in federal funds is working right now to connect the north woods to the rest of the world via fiber-optic broadband internet, an asset so vital to the new economy.

And Uncle Sam underwrites the last glimmer of hope for hundreds of laid-off timber industry workers forced to rely on unemployment and other government benefits, paying thousands of dollars directly to families in Millinocket last year alone.

With a private landowner's proposal to establish a relatively small public park up the road, the National Park Service will be only the latest help from Uncle Sam.

But unlike the existing fountain of government aid -- which park opponents conveniently ignore -- the park is not a handout, not some boogeyman whose help is unknown or unwanted, and not corporate welfare. It is a viable, standalone partnership of public and private interests that represents an entrepreneurial model of sustainable economic development for rural Maine's future.

Independent studies by a University of Montana professor have shown preserving 70,000 acres of the largest uninterrupted forest east of the Mississippi would bring tens of thousands of visitors, second-home owners, new gateway communities and perhaps as many as 3,100 public- and private-sector jobs.

To manage the park, NPS will hire up to 25 full time people and contract with local businesses for the work needed to create the park. Construction, design and engineering professionals will build the park's visitor center and roads.

Once completed, small businesses will provide canoeing, rafting and guided tours inside the park, working near photographers, biologists and other scientific researchers. Young people will be hired in the summer to offer walking tours, clear trails and answer questions. Outside the park, visitors staying in local communities will buy outdoor supplies, food, lodging, gas, souvenirs and art. There will be a demand for housing from employees and retirees. Higher real estate values will provide communities with higher net property tax revenue.

The proposal is viable in and of itself as a way to create hundreds of new jobs in tourism, services, transportation and hospitality. And supporters think a park can coexist quite nicely with the government-supported timber industry.

Sadly, park opponents don't agree. There's only one game in town. It's "them or us."

Because any national park established after 1977 is a Class II park, it won't trigger clean air rules that could idle pulp mills. Comprising only 1% of Maine's commercial forest land, the park will not "lock up" timber land from harvesters, as even Snowe has erroneously claimed. These are just two examples of the erroneous, fear-driven claims of park opponents.

The only salient fact in the north woods is this: Unemployment is too high and wages are too low NOT to consider economic diversification. Government can be -- and currently is -- part of the answer in rural Maine. And a park can coexist alongside traditional industrial uses. Can we afford not to at least study the economic impact of this generous philanthropic gift?

Maine used to offer the world cheap timber at competitive prices. And proposals for pellets, biocoal and torrified wood offer exciting, significant new opportunities for Maine wood producers that must continue to be supported.

But Maine is discovering it still has what the world wants: clean water, open space and endless vistas. Enjoyment of Maine's great outdoors is just as much a part of our heritage as logging, and offers an attractive way to diversify the economy for all residents of our great state.

That's why all Mainers should have the chance to decide whether a 70,000-acre preserve, managed by a federal agency with a significant record of economic development, has a place in Maine's economic future.

Join the 60% of Mainers statewide who support a study of the Maine Woods National Park proposal. Contact U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at (202) 208-3100; e-mail him at feedback@ios.doi.gov; or fill in the comment form at http://www.doi.gov/feedback.cfm, and tell him you want to know more about the economic impact of the Maine Woods National Park.

 

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