STACEYVILLE, Maine — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke praised the beauty of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on Wednesday and said he’s “comfortable” with the National Park Service property remaining in public hands.
With flies buzzing and Mount Katahdin as a backdrop, Zinke sounded optimistic about the future of special land designation granted by President Barack Obama last summer with a goal of giving an economic jolt to the region.
“I’m confident there’s a path forward here that will work,” Zinke said, adding that “clearly, it’s beautiful.”
President Donald Trump has ordered the review of more than two dozen national monuments, including the one in Maine, created on 87,500 acres (35,410 hectares) of privately donated land adjacent to Baxter State Park, home of Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak.
Zinke, a former Republican congressman from Montana, visited the Maine property just days after recommending that the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah be downsized after paying a visit to the site last month.
But Zinke said his call to reduce the size of Bears Ears doesn’t apply to the Maine land because it’s so much smaller to begin with.
“Scaling back, I don’t think makes a lot of sense here,” he told reporters. But he said he wants to ensure activities such as hunting, fishing and timber harvesting are preserved in the area. He also said he wanted to make sure that local residents had a “proper voice” in the decisions.
Zinke’s drive into the federal land passed a handful of signs saying “National Park No.” He surveyed the land and did some hiking. In the afternoon, he planned to canoe on the Penobscot River’s East Branch.
He began his “learning trip” after meeting the night before with Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who’s opposed to the designation by Obama.
LePage has been a vocal critic of the monument and testified against its creation before Congress last month. LePage contends federal ownership of the land would stymie economic development and he also pointed to a National Park Service maintenance backlog. LePage even criticized the beauty of the land and described the region as a “mosquito area.”
But supporters say the special land designation could provide an economic boost by drawing visitors to a region that’s struggling after the closing of a pair of paper mills.
Lucas St. Clair, whose family donated the land and created an endowment to support it, said the governor’s criticism and refusal to allow road signs directing motorists to the site is backfiring by driving attention to it.
He said some folks have begun wearing “Exit 264” signs to inform people of how to get to the monument, since there’s no sign on Interstate 95, he said.
Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills said this week that she would challenge attempts by Trump’s administration to abolish it.
Mills said Zinke’s Interior Department should instead “terminate its review of the Katahdin Woods and Waters designation and reaffirm the agency’s commitment to making the monument work well for all people, particularly the residents of the Katahdin region who are now counting on it for their economic future.”
Zinke was unmoved by Mills’ promise to sue and said it won’t affect his decisions. He said LePage is “rightly concerned about jobs” and that he doesn’t consider the governor and himself that far apart on the monument’s future.
Trump has made the review of federal monuments a priority early in his first year in office. He has accused previous administrations of using the federal Antiquities Act to facilitate a “massive federal land grab” by creating monuments.
During the visit, Zinke noted that he’s been to Maine before. The former Navy SEAL attended the Navy’s survival school in western Maine.