A horn sounds in Millinocket, and even though everyone can hear it, not everyone agrees what it means. Is it a proud sound that harkens back to when the horn and the town’s residents had a clear purpose? Or is it a mournful lament, the sound of decadence and a sinking ship? Whatever the case, everyone can agree what it doesn’t signal: the opening of a national park.
And why should it?
Critics have been quick to point out that the region has few economic prospects, essentially suggesting that beggars can’t be choosers. They recommend that Millinocket, East Millinocket, and Medway, turn the page, in a swift manner, unprecedented among other areas abandoned by the industries that created them. They talk about the economic impact of a national park.
Even if you could financially replace the mill, penny for penny, with a national park and its accoutrements, it would still represent an abrupt lane change for the region culturally. What has gone unsaid in this debate is that, like the vast forest of the north woods, the region’s culture has value too.
Logging is an extraction economy, generating wealth by harvesting (some might say destroying) a natural resource. The north woods of Maine is nothing short of the oldest extraction economy in the United States. Colonial powers set their sights on Maine’s virgin timber well before the United States declared their independence. Over the 400-some-odd years since, Maine’s trees have been harvested to build ships, homes, furniture, toothpicks, and paper. That long history is coming to a slow, awkward end.
Have you ever heard someone running a skidder at half-throttle? No, it’s either wide open or idle. But people aren’t just asking the Millinocket region to idle their equipment, or embrace a slightly different industry, they are asking them to embrace the polar opposite of what generations of people have made their living doing. That’s a tall order, even for Paul Bunyan.
Somehow I doubt Millinocket is going to turn into something resembling Bar Harbor in my lifetime. Be serious. Consider that Mount Desert Island has been a destination for wealthy tourists since the late 1800s, and that the economic engine of Acadia National Park has been over 100 years in the making.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the national park proposal has very little to do with saving the region’s economy, or even protecting the area’s environment, and everything to do with destroying the region’s culture. It’s another condescending salvo in an ongoing cultural war that included 2014’s bear baiting referendum.
So let the horn sound in remembrance or in defiance, the Millinocket region is working through some issues right now. For those on the outside, take it as a warning: some bears are better left alone.