President Obama used his executive authority Wednesday to set aside a swath of Maine's forest as a national monument, pleasing conservationists but also stirring controversy that could foreshadow larger battles to come.
The new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument will span 87,500 acres in Maine's North Woods. The land for the monument was donated to the federal government by Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of the Burt's Bees company. Obama created the monument by decree using his authority under the Antiquities Act, and in a statement noted that he was honoring "the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service."
According to the White House, Obama has set aside "more than 265 million acres of America’s public lands and waters — more than any other president in history."
Wednesday's designation was quickly praised by many, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, the Sierra Club, and other organizations.
But an equally vocal chorus of Mainers has slammed the monument, calling it an overreach of presidential authority and a likely drag on the regional economy. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Gov. Paul LePage blasted Obama for "again taking unilateral action against the will of the people."
"This once again demonstrates that rich, out-of-state liberals can force their unpopular agenda on the Maine people against their will," LePage said.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins also criticized the designation Wednesday, saying Obama created the monument over the objection of the local community. And Rep. Bruce Poliquin said he was opposed to the "unilateral decision."
Though national monuments can be contentious, Katahdin Woods and Waters isn't an obvious candidate for generating conflict. For one thing, it was created from private property, unlike many monuments that are carved from public lands that have long served a multitude of purposes. It's also small; though 87,000 acres is nothing to sneeze at, earlier this year Obama created a group of monuments in California that collectively span 1.3 million acres. Many other proposals similarly total in the millions of acres.
And of course it's located in Maine, thousands of miles from the conflicts over public lands that have roiled Western states in recent years — including the Bundy standoffs in Nevada and Oregon, as well as a simmering resurgence of an anti-federal government movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion.
But despite the uniqueness of the Maine monument, many of the objections being raised closely parallel the arguments coming out of Western states that are furious over the way federal officials manage land.
Criticism from LaPage, Collins, and Poliquin of Obama's executive action follows a long running struggle among some locals to oppose the monument. Over the last year, residents of several small Maine towns have voted against a monument; in April, state lawmakers took a similar vote; and in November, Collins, Poliquin, and Sen. Angus King sent a letter to Obama expressing "serious reservations and significant concerns" about a monument.
"Mainers have a long and proud history of private land ownership, independence, and local control, and do not take lightly any forced action by the federal government to increase its footprint in our state," the letter sent to Obama states.
King initially shared the other lawmakers' reservations about the monument, but in a statement to BuzzFeed News Wednesday said his concerns had been addressed and "the benefits of the designation will far outweigh any detriment and – on balance – will be a significant benefit to Maine and the region."
But others remain frustrated. The lawmakers' letter says the local economy was "decimated by the closure of paper mills in the area" and some fear "any form of federal ownership could jeopardize jobs" in the "working forest." Logging, trucking, and saw milling are also mentioned as economic challenges faced by the area.
"We cannot underscore enough the importance of bringing new economic development to this severely economically depressed region of Maine," the letter adds.
Maine. Rep. Stephen Stanley shared those concerns over the economy. Stanley sponsored a LePage-backed bill earlier this year opposing the monument, and told BuzzFeed News that the area "was like a utopia" before the paper mills closed, with high salaries and good work. Now, the region is suffering from high unemployment, hundreds of homes are for sale or foreclosed, and opportunities are slim. Stanley express optimism about transiting to a tourism economy, but remains concerned about more federal involvement.
"After us older people kick the bucket there’s not going to be much left here," he said.
The economic impact of national monuments is subject of considerable debate and is unlikely to disappear as a point of contention any time soon. And in the wake of Obama's announcement, Maine is moving on.
"I'm disappointed it happened," Stanley said. "But it's a done deal. There's not much we can do."
What's remarkable, however, is how closely the fight against and outcry over Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument parallels high profile battles in the West. Particularly In Utah — the intellectual and legislative heart of an effort to reduce federal land management — where lawmakers have argued that creating a national monument in a vast and remote region known as Bears Ears would have disastrous affects on an already beleaguered rural economy.
There's a key difference though: in the West, the proposals cover vast stretches of land in a region that has a long history of resisting — sometimes peacefully, other times not — federal land management. Which is to say that if a relatively small forest in Maine is prompting some controversy, bigger fights in more contentious places may loom on the horizon.
And the frustration seen in Maine could be just the beginning.
"If average Mainers don’t realize by now that the political system is rigged against them by wealthy, self-serving liberals from away, this is a serious wake-up call," LePage said. "The fix has been in all along.”