Monumental Decision, Part 3: Maine

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is already seeing positive economic impact resulting from monument designation.

By Shauna Farnell July 5, 2017
This is part 3 of a series. Read part 1. Read part 2.

Nate Richardson had been watching the heavy waves of the recession drown one business after another in his small town of Patten, Maine, over the past several years. But when president Obama designated the nearby Katahdin Woods and Waters a national monument in 2016, things immediately began looking up.

“With this designation of the monument, we’ve seen a whole lot of people, a lot of brand new faces coming to the area,” says Richardson, whose family has owned and operated Richardson’s Hardware for four generations, since 1948. “We’re not in the best economic position here in northern Maine, so anything that can boost our economy is fantastic. We doubled the size of our store with the intention that this could be very big for us.”

Richardson’s has tripled its inventory of camping, fishing and hunting supplies and has added kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

“We’ve seen people come through specifically for the monument,” Richardson says. “Not having that type of product in this area, we looked at it as an addition that would certainly help not just our store but our community. Every week that goes by, we see more and more people. We’re excited about it.”

Katahdin Woods and Waters is one of 27 U.S. national monuments currently under review by the Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior. At 87,563 acres, it is the smallest of those under review and is unique in the fact that the land was a private gift to the federal government by conservationist and Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby along with a $40 million endowment to protect and preserve it.

Read about Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante

Read about Arizona’s and New Mexico’s national monuments under review

Obama’s designation of the national monument was met with staunch opposition, most vocally from Maine Governor Paul LePage, who has refused to allow signage directing visitors to the monument.

“Why does the governor not like it? You know, he’s never been there. He’s not an outdoorsy guy,” says Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son and Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters President.

Some believe that the initial opposition to the monument was due to the fact that there is very little publicly owned land in Maine. However, numerous community members have eased their resistance as they’ve seen the potential for economic growth, and other Maine business owners, such as Sterling Rope founder and OIA member Carolyn Brodsky, have become decidedly “neutral” about the monument. Brodsky, has been a strong voice for recreation and land-protection policy in Maine and in the wider outdoor industry, and her company Sterling Rope is seen as an anchor of the industry in the area.

“There is nothing spectacular about this land other than the fact it is adjacent to [Mt.] Katahdin. That is the tourist draw in the region, Katahdin Woods will not be, whether a national monument or park,” Brodsky says.

Yet the numbers are starting to tell their own story. Since opening for its first summer season as a national monument in May of this year, Katahdin Woods and Waters has seen more visitors in a handful of weeks than it’s measured in a year.

“We’ve seen a remarkable change in a short period of time. I’m blown away,” St. Clair says. “I knew it would have economic benefits, but I thought they would be significant over time. We had 800 cars drive into the monument in the first three weeks it was open. That’s more than any visitation we’ve had in a year up to this point.”

In contrast to Brodsky, who notes, rightly, that Katahdin “is not a place with antiquities,” in the form of cultural or historic artifacts community members and lifelong residents insist that the area is spectacularly unique and sacred.

“This was a key area for the Wabanaki people and for protecting the headwaters of the river that it is their namesake,” St. Clair says. There’s a lot more history and relevance that makes it worthy of being a park unit and being subject to protection under the Antiquities Act.”

St. Clair goes on to point out the importance of the area’s watershed, the flora and fauna, the fact that a still-intact northern hardwoods forest is not otherwise represented in the nation’s park and monument system. He mentions that President Theodore Roosevelt, the very man who signed and shaped The Antiquities Act, “formed his origin story in this landscape” and that many of Henry David Thoreau’s greatest works were inspired by a float down Katahdin’s waters.

“It’s also got some of the darkest skies in the country,” St. Clair says. “That is unusual especially in the East where most of our land is developed and densely populated. To have all this in proximity to that mega-opolis is very special.”

Even initial skeptics like Brodsky now say that Maine has nothing to lose in the Katahdin Woods and Waters monument and that “if it does create jobs, all the better.”

“Governor LePage’s issue with this has always been that our state legislature, our senators and the district house representatives were all against this,” says Brodsky. “Initially, so were a majority of the locals. However, as the economics of the area continued to worsen, that attitude changed to being either neutral to positive about the monument,” she says, adding that she has reached out to Gov. Lepage about dropping his fight against the monument.

A few weeks into its first season and Katahdin Woods and Waters is already creating jobs. In expanding his store and its outdoor offerings, Richardson is hiring new employees.

Read and download OIA’s 2017 Recreation Economy report to lear more about how the industry in Maine and around the country supports healthy economies and communities

“It makes sense for our community to embrace this,” he says. “It makes sense to build some infrastructure for people to come visit our area and understand why we like it so much.”

John Ellis, co-owner of Ellis Family Market, was originally vehemently opposed to Quimby’s taking of the land and gifting it to the government, but he’s now a proponent of the monument after observing the positive economic impact of its designation.

“We own two grocery stores on both sides of the park. We’ve started offering different items—T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats. It’s an opportunity to be creative, to bring people to our communities. In our smaller store, we’re doubling the size in anticipation of more traffic,” Ellis says. “It needed to be expanded anyway, but this kind of cemented the plan. You have to move along with life. I know we are as a business community. We are looking forward to this as an economic push from businesses to schools to everything.”

This is part 3 of a series. Read part 1. Read part 2.