Like a lot of people, I’ve celebrated the National Parks Centennial by wishing I could visit one. I want to see Yosemite National Park at dawn, Bryce Canyon at sunset, visit Glacier National Park before all its glaciers have disappeared, shoot across the Everglades in a hover-craft, hike in the Grand Tetons.
Those are all half-a-continent away, unfortunately. Here in the Northeast, national parks are pretty hard to find. New England has Cape Cod National Seashore and more than its share of historical sites managed by the National Park Service, but just one National Park, Acadia on the coast of Maine.
America isn’t getting any new national parks these days — Republicans in Congress won’t spend the money needed to maintain the parks we have, let alone create new ones. But we just got the next best thing. On the eve of the 100th birthday of the National Parks Service, President Obama created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in the inland forest of northern Maine.
A national monument is permanently preserved and administered by the NPS, and can be a stepping-stone to a national park. But presidents can designate national monuments without a vote by Congress, thanks to the Antiquities Act signed in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt, the country’s greatest conservationist president.
Obama is building a conservationist legacy of his own. Obama has now created 23 national monuments, ranging from huge swathes of marine habitat in the Pacific to New York’s tiny Stonewall Inn, birthplace of the gay rights movement.
Obama’s creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument with a stroke of his pen was denounced by critics who are now pushing for repeal of the Antiquities Act. But Obama didn’t do it all by himself. The real author of this story is Roxanne Quimby.
Raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, Quimby caught the “back to nature” bug in the 1970s and moved to Maine’s North Woods. Scraping to earn a living, she began making candles from beeswax she got from her friend, a beekeeper named Burt. Their tiny enterprise grew into Burt’s Bees, a personal care products company eventually sold to Clorox for $925 million.
Quimby spent some of that fortune quietly purchasing land in rural Maine and lobbying Congress to create a North Woods National Park. When that effort was blocked by so-called conservatives who see conservation as a plot by the “radical Greens,” Quimby gave 87,500 acres to the people of the United States for the Katahdin national monument, along with a pledge of $40 million to develop and maintain it for public use.
Some Mainers don’t appreciate her generosity. Gov. Paul LePage was livid: “It’s sad that rich, out-of-state liberals can team up with President Obama to force a national monument on rural Mainers who do not want it,” he said in a statement.
But there’s nothing radical or new in Quimby’s philanthropy. Back in the 1920s, John D. Rockefeller, America’s wealthiest man, secretly bought up thousands of acres in Wyoming, donating it to the federal government to create Grand Teton National Park. I always thought conservatives believed people who own private property should be able to decide how it is used, or even give it away.
LePage is Donald Trump without the sophistication. Like Trump, he thinks saying insulting, offensive things is some kind of virtue. Last week, he left an obscenity-laced message on the answering machine of a Democratic state legislator and bragged about it, leading some in Augusta to openly question his mental health.
Also like Trump, LePage sees economic development as a matter of turning back the clock. He considers Quimby’s gift an obstacle to a return to the good old days when fresh-cut timber clogged Maine’s rivers and the stench of pulp paper plants filled the air. He and other critics worry that the new park will threaten “traditional sports,” which is code for hunting and snowmobiling, which Quimby had restricted on her land.
In any event, Maine’s North Woods is more than 3.5 million acres. Preserving 2.5 percent of that for public use will still leave plenty of opportunities for hunting and snowmobiling. There’s ample lumber there if anyone wants it, but wood is not exactly the material of the future, and newsprint made from wood pulp, the region’s major product, is going the way of newspapers.
Natural beauty is also an economic asset — just ask the prosperous merchants of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or Gatlinburg, Tennessee. More than 2 million people a year visit Acadia National Park, just two hours east of the new national monument. The tourism that is a vital part of the economy of Maine’s coast can bring jobs inland as well.
Besides, the lessons of a century of America’s national parks is that scenic landscapes belong to everybody, not just the residents of one region or one state. And while economic considerations may loom large today, preserving beautiful places for the enjoyment of generations yet unborn is priceless.
Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, and follow him @HolmesAndCo.