Andrew Bossie, executive director of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, addresses the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library on Thursday. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
LEWISTON — It’s new, it’s wild and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is open to be explored.
That was the basis of Andrew Bossie’s discussion Thursday during the final Great Falls Forum of the season at the Lewiston Public Library.
Bossie, executive director of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, used the talk to describe the group’s efforts to build awareness of the national monument created in 2016.
Technically, there is one full-time staff member: Superintendent Tim Hudson.
There is no visitors center, no public restroom and not enough trail signs, but Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters and the National Parks Service are trying to change that.
Bossie said miles of forests and rivers are ready to be explored via kayak, canoe, mountain bike, cross-country skis or foot.
The area has some of the darkest night skies in the eastern half of the United States, which Bossie and others hope can lead to “astrotourism” in Maine.
Bossie said the Friends group is focusing on boosting infrastructure. They also just released a new map of the monument, and have been distributing copies of a park loop road map. They’d also like more people to get involved.
“It’s not Baxter State Park, it’s not Acadia National Park,” he said. “There’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built, there’s no cell service.”
The 87,500 acres in Penobscot County, bought and donated by conservationist Roxanne Quimby, had controversial beginnings. Some in the local communities, which have economies that have struggled after paper mill closures, argued the land should be open to timber harvesting, and that more of the property should be available for hunting and snowmobiling.
Following a 2016 executive order from President Obama that designated it a monument, Gov. Paul LePage became a harsh critic, eventually lobbying the Trump administration to rescind the designation.
However, last August, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced it would not be rescinded following his review of 27 national monuments.
On Thursday, Bossie said public opinion, especially from the local communities, has steadily come around. There has been compromise — the eastern part of the park is open to snowmobiling and hunting, while the western section is not — and he said there are now indications the monument is pumping life back into the local economy.
“Our organization isn’t just focused on the park,” he said. “We also want these unique communities to reap the benefits of these lands with new jobs and economic activity.”
In 2016, when the monument was created, Bossie estimated it had 7,500 visitors. In 2017, the number had grown to about 30,000.
Bossie said since the monument’s creation, a local hardware store in Patten has doubled in size, with an outdoor center featuring kayak rentals. In Millinocket, a real estate company has hired more staff in response to a rebounding real estate market, he said.
Bossie was asked about the possibility that changes could still come down from Zinke’s office, including opening the land for timber harvesting.
He said at this point, officials do not see a threat to the existence or size of the monument, but “we do remain concerned about some of the secretary’s recent suggestions that timber harvesting may be prioritized.”
Bossie, a Caribou native, assumed his position five months ago at Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters. Previously, he was executive director of the Maine AIDS Alliance and executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
He has also maintained a passion for hiking and mountain climbing, and has climbed 33 of the 48 peaks in the White Mountains that are taller than 4,000 feet.
Bossie said it was fitting his discussion was the last Great Falls Forum of the season.
“After this,” he said, “we should all get outdoors.”