Burt’s Maine Preserve: A state park with all the benefits, no drawbacks

The debate over land owned by the Quimby family reignited this week. So I have to ask: why are people opposed to a park in the Maine woods?

Not a national park — there are reasonable arguments against federal control of large swaths of our state. Many of those arguments were put forward by none other than Gov. Percival Baxter. Instead, I’m asking: why not support a state park?

A cow and a calf moose walk along a roadway on land owned by Elliotsville Plantation Inc. Brian Feulner | BDN

A cow and a calf moose walk along a roadway on land owned by Elliotsville Plantation Inc. Brian Feulner | BDN

We’ve heard many arguments for a national park from proponents, such as its significant, positive impact on the Piscataquis County economy. The study they commissioned appeared to bolster that finding. In other areas of the country, the mere presence of a national park purportedly leads to a significant increase in available jobs. Who doesn’t support more jobs in rural Maine?

But, as others have already pointed out, the comparisons don’t quite match up; Columbia, South Carolina, is more than a touch different than Millinocket, Maine. Furthermore, the study has another significant flaw — it doesn’t control for a minor variable called “Baxter.” Most likely, they had no way to control for it; Baxter has few analogues. Western states have had significant federal land holdings since their inception while other states are riddled with national forests, military installations, or other Washington-controlled areas.

Maine is unique, with over 94 percent of our land in private ownership and little federal intrusion. This is why landowner relationships are so crucial to our enjoyment of the outdoors — those relationships are an important part of Maine culture, and one of the facets which reinforce connections within our communities. But even if the economists found an example with a massive state park co-located with a smaller national park, it would likely remain an imperfect comparison. Our 200,000-acre variable contains the major natural features of the area — the new park wouldn’t have them.

If it doesn’t have unique natural features, what will the draw be? Some have proffered accessibility and infrastructure will set it apart, contrasted with the “forever wild” constraint on Baxter. That would certainly be different — Baxter has been clear its founding vision will be enforced. You won’t see Acadia-style carriage trails anytime soon. But there are no constraints on a new state park. Elliotsville Plantation could easily incorporate infrastructure into its land grant, especially since the company claims its endowment will be enough to manage the land in perpetuity.

Could the proponents be afraid of the political vagaries of state government? That is not unreasonable — welcome to the conservative cause! We’re generally concerned about vagaries at all levels of government, but I digress. Baxter has shown a governance structure which insulates a generous donation while maintaining state control. Chandler Woodcock, Doug Denico, and Janet Mills share the job today in their official roles (commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, state forester and attorney general), yet exercise independent judgment. Mainers remain in charge while the gift remains protected from the Legislature.

What about the “advertising” value of a National Park? Is there a certain “je ne sais quoi” provided by federal control of land? That is hard to say. Would there be fewer visitors to the Grand Canyon or Gettysburg if the states ran them? Bar Harbor was popular before the advent of the National Park Service. If the Rockefeller family and other benefactors had given Maine their land and financed the improvements, would Acadia be less popular?

These hypotheticals cannot be answered. But we do know Sebago Lake fills up quickly when dates become available, and many other parks see significant traffic. New York’s Adirondack Park, controlled by the state, draws nearly 10 million visitors a year. There would be no reason why Maine — whether via government or through the businesses that stand to benefit — could not embark on an education campaign to bring new tourists in as part of a new park, leveraging the “forever wild” brand of Baxter to bolster it.

Whether we call it Maine Woods State Park, Quimbyland, or Burt’s Maine Preserve, most of the arguments put forward by proponents could also hold true with a state-run park. And many of the reasonable concerns some have related to a massive federal presence in the Maine woods would be allayed. So why not support a state park?

If the answer is simply the Quimby family does not want a state park, fine. Private property rights are a wonderful thing, and their opinion as landowners rightly carries real weight. But maybe a state park is the compromise that results in everyone giving a little. It might even be the solution that wins a Ranked Choice Vote, but that is a topic for another week.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.