The gym at Schenck High School in East Millinocket was full.
There were two tables for participants. A moderator from the Bangor Daily News. TV cameras. Reporters. Signs and stickers. And a big crowd.
It was two years ago this month on June 18, and it was just one of literally hundreds of events – some large, some small – that were held on the way to the creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
The debate was cordial and informative. The crowd was passionate but well-behaved. And a lot of good information and ideas were exchanged.
Lucas St. Clair was one of the people in the debate.
He’s the president of Elliotsville Plantation Inc., a nonprofit foundation and large, private landowner that had proposed donating land and money to create a new national park in Maine.
At the time, the proposal was to create a national park, with a rough acquisition boundary that included about 150,000 acres of land. The idea had many supporters and vocal opponents.
Maine has a long and proud tradition of public engagement. It stems from the town meeting form of government that still dominates the state, particularly in rural areas.
People have an expectation that they will be heard and that their questions will be answered.
Beginning in 2012, St. Clair took over the leadership of project from his mother, entrepreneur and businesswoman Roxanne Quimby. Born and raised in northern Maine and with a sportsman’s resume, St. Clair set out to talk with as many people as possible about the idea to create a new national park.
Over the course of four years, there were hundreds of one-on-one meetings, large town hall meetings, presentations, information booths, debates, community meetings, outreach to elected officials and a real effort to get to know both proponents and opponents of the national park idea.
There was a telephone town hall, which included more than 5,000 participants, with questions and answers.
There was an official congressional field hearing in East Millinocket, which included Gov. Paul LePage, and a town hall held by U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
During the town hall, every question that was asked was answered. Every concern was logged.
Independent economic analysis was performed. Polling was conducted.
And conversations were held. Countless conversations.
Over time, the proposal for a national park changed as more and more people weighed in. The size of the proposal got smaller until it reached the appropriate scale to accomplish the goals of conserving land and maintaining access for a wide range of outdoor activities.
Hunting and snowmobiling, critical to the Katahdin region’s heritage and economy, were permanently protected.
The proposal included a $40 million endowment, to both speed investment in the region and to lessen the impact on taxpayers.
The proposal transitioned from a national park to a national monument.
The monument, not even a year old, is already a success. It’s attracting new investment in the region and new visitors, which is prompting additional business expansion.
The monument was listed on CNN as one of the 17 must visit places in the world for 2017. And media outlets around the country, including CBS Sunday Morning, the Boston Globe and New York Times have all written about it.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is in Maine this week to visit the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and to meet with stakeholders about the monument and the how it was created.
He’s the third consecutive secretary of the interior to visit the Katahdin region. He’s coming as part of a review of national monuments ordered by President Donald Trump in May.
Specifically, Zinke is charged with determining whether the designation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument included adequate public outreach.
I started work on the national monument project in 2012. Through years of public outreach and comment, I watched as the proposal changed, got stronger and support grew.
Today, there are former opponents who are now supporters, a growing list of businesses who want the monument preserved, and three out of four members of Maine’s congressional delegation who oppose any changes to the monument designation.
But you can still help. Public comment on Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument will be open until July 10. Add your name to the roster of supporters.
And if you happen to see Secretary Zinke this week, welcome him to Maine, thank him for coming and tell him how much you love our new monument.