Bishop's Brand of Public Lands Bashing Won't Fly in Maine

The differences between Maine and Utah are substantial. Think LL Bean boots vs. cowboy boots. King pines vs. sagebrush. Moose vs. bighorn sheep. Oysters vs. Rocky Mountain oysters. This divide also holds true for treatment of public lands.

In America's West, vast national forests and national parks are owned by and open to the public. By comparison, in many parts of the Northeast, the closest many folks get to wilderness is the median strip of Interstate 95. As a result, Northeast residents like myself fiercely protect our ability to use and enjoy the forests, lakes, and coastlines to which access still exists.

On June 1, West will meet East when Utah Congressman Rob Bishop chairs a congressional hearing in Millinocket, Maine targeting a proposal from a private landowner who wants to donate 87,500 acres of land--and a $40 million endowment--to the National Park Service to create and maintain the Maine North Woods National Monument.

There are differing views in Maine about whether to establish a new monument on the site, though polling indicates that roughly two-thirds of Mainers support the concept. But the Utah congressman's ideological opposition to conserving lands and wildlife is well outside Maine's mainstream.

Rep. Bishop heads up a 20-member congressional Anti-Parks Caucus. The caucus's goals include transferring and selling national forests and public lands in the West, ending the Land and Water Conservation Fund--a program that has helped create ball fields, trails, and open space throughout Maine and the country--and stopping the creation of new parks, wilderness areas, and national monuments.

Rep. Bishop has already come out in opposition to the North Woods proposal and is likely to trot out the same old tired arguments when he comes north. Anti-Parks Caucus members often rail against federal takeovers of public lands, though in the instance of the North Woods proposal, the landowner is asking to make a gift to the American people. They bloviate about the cost to taxpayers of maintaining these recreation areas, though in this case the cost will be covered by private donations. They bemoan the injustice of forcing outdoorsmen off their recreational lands, though hunting, snowmobiling, and other uses will be allowed in much of the proposed monument area.

Perhaps loudest of all, Anti-Parks Caucus members decry the economic losses from what they perceive as the elimination of working land--in the West that debate has centered on grazing rights and other uses. In the Kathadin region of Maine, some opponents claim a monument would harm the pulp and paper industry, yet nearly all the area's paper mills are already shuttered because of broader market forces. For better or worse, what happens to this particular parcel of land won't help or harm the region's timber industry.

But if Rep. Bishop stops to listen when he comes to Maine instead of dusting off his Cliven Bundy-inspired talking points, he will find a state with a proud tradition of forging compromises to conserve its land and natural resources and support economic development.

Southeast of the proposed monument site, along the Penobscot River, groups that sat on opposite sides of the table for decades have come together to remove dams, bring fish back, and restore an iconic watershed that has also boosted tourism.

Maine's lobster industry has put sustainability at the forefront for generations, self-policing common-sense regulations like those that make it illegal to harvest egg-bearing females and set a maximum as well as a minimum size limit to leave the largest, most fecund breeders in the water. It's no coincidence that lobster is currently the highest value single-species fishery in the country.

Now in Maine's North Woods, residents are following a path that is uniquely their own. Through town halls, meetings, coffees, and engagement from the state's elected leaders, this proposal is being shaped, reshaped, and molded into a true Maine solution. The editorial boards of the state's two largest newspapers have endorsed the monument, as have more than 200 individual businesses, the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce, and a wide range of local organizations. So perhaps instead of pontificating about the evil deeds of Big Government, Rep. Bishop will choose instead to listen and observe during his visit to Maine.

If he does, Rep. Bishop will witness an impassioned discussion about Maine's prized forests, just the latest entry in a storied history of compromises. But if he doesn't, Mainers will happily pack up his lobster to go.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress and a resident of South Portland, Maine.