What a bison calf’s euthanization has to do with Maine’s national park debate

We all know the director of the National Park Service visited Maine this week to discuss the Quimby family proposal creating a national park — sorry, national monument. A park would require the buy-in of Maine’s elected officials in Washington. Monuments require only a president, his pen, and his phone, pesky Congress — and the Maine Legislature — be damned.

But did you know we sacrificed a bison in a national park? Out in Yellowstone, visitors made a foolish decision to “help” a bison calf and loaded it into their car. Its mother and herd subsequently rejected it and it had to be put down. Well-intentioned people killed the very thing they wanted to help. That example reveals the tension in this never-ending debate over Roxanne Quimby’s land.

Don't put this bison calf in  your car!

Don’t put this bison calf in your car!

You can hear the positive intentions in the way supporters describe the proposal. “[A] major recreational attraction in the interior of northern Maine can be part of a new economic foundation that will create opportunities for new businesses to start and existing businesses to grow.”

That statement was reportedly made by Lucas St. Clair at this past week’s hearing with the National Park Service. It sounds wonderful; who could be against it? Well, I hate to pick nits, but don’t we already have a major recreational attraction in the interior of northern Maine? Or did Janet Mills and Chandler Woodcock misplace Baxter State Park somewhere while we weren’t watching? (Mills, the attorney general, and Woodcock, commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, serve on the Baxter State Park Authority.)

The hoped-for economic benefit brought by federal involvement is the core “good intention” offered by supporters. Advocates declare the past deceased, with a monument or park the beacon of hope for future economic development. At the same time, we hear announcements that there is often “only one chance to act” to protect this land, with the connotation that the Maine woods are otherwise in jeopardy; ravenous developers are circling like vultures. Consistency mattereth not.

The “economic development” message is a better public position; who doesn’t want jobs? It neglects the fact that the “study” done for Elliotsville Plantation, Inc. — a dreaded corporation — has holes large enough you could drive a tri-axle through. The 200,000-acre variable known as “Baxter” never was controlled for in the analysis.

Yet, insofar as development does threaten Maine’s forested areas, it almost all stems from a single industry: wind. Nearly all large-scale developments in the Unorganized Territory are wind farms. Ironically, people who express the most concern about conservation are often the most vocal champions of massive wind towers and the infrastructure — power lines, roads, and substations — it takes to sustain them.

Of course, park proponents often claim opponents are really the ones killing what they love by looking a gift horse in the mouth as the region’s economic struggles continue. “If not a park, then what?” It is a good question, but the wrong one.

My guess is, if Ms. Quimby chose to create her own privately owned park, much of the opposition would dissipate. Or, if she ceded the land to Baxter and utilized the $40 million to improve and promote Maine’s existing park, she would be supported. So the question isn’t about a park, it is about federal control.

Supporters dismiss that concern as right-wing wackery. They are wrong. Wherever you lay blame, the reality is Washington’s commitments outpace our ability to pay regardless of the Quimby endowment. The National Park Service began this year $12 billion in the hole. Our roads and bridges are approaching $1 trillion in needed repairs and upgrades, Social Security will run out of reserves in the next 15 years, and we’re almost at $20 trillion in national debt.

Additionally, the federal government remains a slow-moving, distant, faceless bureaucracy. That isn’t political commentary against the Obama administration; it would be the same under a Republican. When it comes to the concerns of Mainers, Maine officials — the attorney general, commissioner of IF&W, and the state forester — will always be more responsive, and certainly more accountable.

So as much as well-intentioned people want to help by bringing in a federal monument, the lesson of the bison calf should remain in our minds. Washington’s involvement could euthanize everything that makes the Maine woods — local control, private ownership, responsible forestry, and traditional recreation — unique. Let’s not kill what we love.

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.