Economic Development and National Parks

NPR had a fascinating story that really highlights what “economic development” has come to mean.

Roxanne Quimby, founder of Burt’s Bees, had been slowly buying up property around Millinocket, Maine that has been abandoned by paper mills. Her ultimate goal was to donate 100,000 acres and an endowment to the National Park Service for the creation of a new national park. (The Boston Globe details her son’s efforts to mend the discord she created with the local residents.)

For national park fans like me though, that’s great news. The eastern half of the United States just doesn’t have room for sizable national parks—most the large parks in the western half were created before the population boom—and another park in Maine would be a wonderful addition to the system. The fact that a private citizen has done all the work acquiring the land makes this a no-brainer proposition.

Why, then, is there so much opposition in the state to this idea?

The town of Millinocket and the Maine State Legislature have both opposed the park, as have most of the state’s Congressional delegation. Protests have arisen over the National Park System’s regulations prohibiting certain activities in parks, including timber milling.

But according to NPR:

It’s been three years since work stopped at the mill in Millinocket, Maine, and there are signs everywhere of the toll that’s taking: vacant storefronts; 50-percent-off signs; and on the block in front of the mill, several homes for sale, one with a handmade sign saying, “$25,000 as-is — make an offer”… Residents are crossing their fingers about going back to work, but the local unemployment rate stands at 21 percent.

The town certainly seems hard hit and is likely having trouble adjusting to this new reality. Industries of the past may never return to Maine—or to the nation at large—but that doesn’t mean Millinocket is destined to become a ghost town. Tourism and travel—particularly in areas of our nation with beautiful natural resources—is an economic model that’s often overlooked in favor of older, out-dated ones.

A map pinpointing the location of the proposed new national park in Maine.

Acadia National Park, also located in Maine, has one of the highest visitation levels of any national park (most likely because it’s one of the few parks on the East Coast) and provides 14 times the economic value in comparison to its budget. In fact, it has one of the highest benefit to cost returns in the park system. The U.S. National Park System: An Economic Asset at Risk describes, in detail, the economic impact of Acadia and other national parks.

Highlights of the Acadia’s economic importance include:

• $100 million in annual recreational benefits, providing a park benefit to cost ratio of more than 14 to 1.
• $137 million in annual visitor spending, supporting more than 3,500 local jobs (not including park staff).
• Amenity values contributing to annual population, employment,and personal income growth rates 0.5% to 1% higher than the state average.

And the proposed park in twice the size of Acadia.

Paper mills, factories, and other industries may simply never come back to some of these towns. It’s time to start embracing a new model of economic development, one that takes full advantage of an area’s natural resources but looks at it in a new light—that of tourism.