Senate bill seeks to improve access to Katahdin Woods and Waters

·5 min read

Aug. 11—News of the possible expansion of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was welcomed Wednesday by area businesses and users of the wilderness park in the Katahdin region.

Sen. Angus King introduced legislation last week to help improve visitor access to Katahdin Woods and Waters. Co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, Senate Bill 4784 would allow the National Park Service to acquire land parcels to create a new entrance to the south of the park, providing easier access to and from Millinocket. King's office announced details of the bill in a statement Wednesday.

Currently, the southernmost road to the national monument is in the southeast corner of the 87,500-acre park, but it takes about an hour to reach from Millinocket and East Millinocket, the two largest towns in the region, which are both an hour north of Bangor and easily accessible from Interstate 95.

Local business owners in the Katahdin region expressed delight at the news, saying a new entrance would cut travel time from Millinocket to the park in half.

"It's just awesome news. Anything that they can do to help our tourism economy is a blessing," said wildlife photographer Anita Mueller, who co-owns Moose Prints Gallery and Gifts in Millinocket.

"People right now are coming here looking for the solace of the outdoors, particularly after COVID the past few years. We are seeing more and more people who want open spaces."

The most popular feature of Katahdin Woods and Waters appears to be the 17-mile loop road that offers views of Katahdin. The national monument's river system along the East Branch of the Penobscot River and Wassataquoik Stream also is becoming increasingly popular, according to the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters.

The National Park Service estimates that around 40,000 visitors came to the national monument in 2020 and 2021.

By comparison, half of Maine's state parks drew at least that many visitors in 2019 and 2020, the last years figures were available, and many drew two to four times that, according to the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. In 2020, there were 10 Maine state parks that had more than 100,000 visitors, according to the bureau.

The bill introduced by King also allows for the National Park Service to acquire buildings outside of the park's boundaries for the monument's administrators, doing so in cooperation with willing landowners. All expansions would protect traditional hunting, fishing and snowmobile use on the acquired property and are "expressly forbidden from being done through eminent domain," King's office said in the statement.

SMOOTHER ENTRY TO PARK

"The expansions the bill authorizes would allow for a smoother entry into the park, bring visitors closer to the heart of the Millinocket community and further expand the Katahdin region's tourism economy," King said.

The land within Katahdin Woods and Waters was donated by philanthropist Roxanne Quimby to the National Park Service and designated a national monument by former President Barack Obama on Aug. 24, 2016 — but only after years of heated debate over whether it would help or hurt the outdoor economy and culture of the region.

John Raymond, the president of the Northern Timber Cruisers snowmobile club, said snowmobiling and ATV riding still bring more tourists to the region.

"It's here to stay. There's not much we can do about it," Raymond said of Katahdin Woods and Waters. "I still believe motorized recreation will be so much better for the region than the park will be. That remains to be seen. But people who come here to ATV come here with deep pockets."

Others in the Millinocket region were happy about Wednesday's news.

"It would be good to have the entrance closer to Millinocket. It would be great for the campgrounds in the area. We do send people up there. But some people tend not to make the 45-minute drive. It does deter them. A closer entrance would be easier," said Wendi Munson, manager of the Wilderness Edge Campground located a mile from downtown Millinocket.

At the New England Outdoor Center a few miles outside Millinocket, owner Matt Polstein is in the process of expanding Twin Pine Camps, where his guiding service caters to snowmobilers, Nordic skiers, mountain bikers and rafting enthusiasts. A new outdoor activities building and microbrewery will open there in the coming months.

Polstein estimates that the national monument helped grow his business 5 percent to 10 percent in recent years, and the monument's future was a consideration when he planned the expansion of his business.

"In northern Maine 5 or 10 percent of your business is a critical part," Polstein said. "I think it's outstanding. It really will enhance the benefit to businesses in the southern-end of the monument."

DARK SKIES A BRIGHT SPOT

John Meader of Fairfield, the director of the Northern Stars Planetarium and Educational Services, has visited Katahdin Woods and Waters about a dozen times to enjoy the night sky — because the national monument is designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark-Sky Association. Meader said the accessibility and signage in the monument have gotten better over the past six years, and while dirt roads come with challenges, he likes how they slow people down.

"The whole idea of dark skies is a treasure. If you travel around the world you know, you don't have the same sky. It is important for people to realize it's a resource," Meader said. "And it draws people in. It is literally the darkest sky east of the Mississippi in the continental United States."

Sam Deeran, acting executive director of the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, said since he and his partner moved to a township just outside the southernmost entrance to the park a year ago, he's watched more and more people drive into the monument.

"As far as visitors looking for more front-country, I think increasingly people are gravitating toward the loop road and the park service provides a good map to drive around the loop road to make a great half day or full day," Deeran said. "We also get a good number of inquiries about paddling the river. I can say anecdotally, there is always a buzz of activity around the new campsites beside the river."

King's bill has been referred to the Senate's Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.