Last week, Gov. Paul LePage testified in front of the House Committee on Natural Resources during its hearing on alleged overreach by the Obama administration in its use of the Antiquities Act. LePage was there to voice opposition to the use of the act to create the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which preserves 87,500 acres of forest in Northern Penobscot County.
His testimony was rough, to say the least.
He repeatedly mispronounced the name of the region, referring to Maine’s highest mountain as “Katardin.” He was unable to estimate the financial impact of tourism on Maine’s economy, our state’s largest industry. He was unnecessarily combative, and he managed to insult inland Maine by referring to it broadly as “the mosquito area.”
Lost in his bumbling testimony was a potentially legitimate point about the federal government’s forestry management methodology, citing Baxter State Park’s “working forest” approach practiced in roughly 14 percent of the park, known as the Scientific Management Unit, as a safer way to manage large forests.
A debate about the best way to take care of 87,500 acres of forest is a legitimate one. But LePage is a horrible communicator, and his caustic and often times unintelligible presentation last week buried this concern beneath layers of disjointed rhetoric.
LePage cited the devastating 1947 Acadia National Park fire as an example of the risk of federal management. That fire burned thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes on Mount Desert Island. The governor used the fire to make the case that the Katahdin forest was at higher risk of fire through federal management, as well as Baxter State Park, which borders the monument.
His use of Acadia as an example fails to provide the context of the wide-ranging forest fires throughout the entire state of Maine in 1947. Maine’s strange weather that year resulted in roughly half of the normal rainfall. According the New England Historical Society, over a two-week stretch in October 1947, “firefighters tried to fight 200 Maine fires, consuming a quarter of a million acres of forest and wiping out nine entire towns.”
Instead of advancing his argument about forest preservation vs. forest conservation, LePage’s sloppy arguments lead down a road that negates his point. The Bar Harbor fire in 1947 wasn’t a result of federal forestry management, it was the result of drought in an era when Maine’s firefighting infrastructure was relatively undeveloped.
There’s a reasonable concern about fire risk being exacerbated by poor forestry practices. But these concerns can’t be rationally discussed with LePage involved in the conversation. The governor had an opportunity to drill down on his concerns in front of the congressional committee of jurisdiction over these issues — he had the ear of the people in charge. And LePage has credibility on this issue because of his extensive background in the forest products industry. But instead of explaining his perspective on fire risk, he drifted off into his standard knee-jerk anti-government talking points.
To put it bluntly, LePage’s argument that the Katahdin Monument was a “federal land grab” is total nonsense. This was private land purchased on the open market and graciously donated to the federal government to be preserved in perpetuity for the express goal of giving everyone access to it. Any conservative worth his salt would respect the right of a private property owner to do what they want with their land.
The real “land grab” would happen if LePage successfully got the monument status overturned — resulting in the federal government stripping away landowner rights. LePage seems to think the government should be able to socialize these 87,500 acres so he (the government) can decide what happens on it.
The temptation to attack the Katahdin monument as a left-wing boondoggle is far too great for LePage, though. His sense of tribal hatred supersedes the dogma of his own alleged ideology. The bottom line, for the governor, is that the land’s owner is a liberal. And the president that made the monument designation was also a liberal. So, in LePage’s mind, no matter how good the monument is for the region, no matter how many jobs it brings to Maine, and no matter how well-seated the concept is in the free exercise of land ownership and limited government, the liberal authorship makes it bad.
In the case of his congressional testimony, this partisan blindness obscured a reasonable concern for the quality of forest management the federal government will provide. Instead of highlighting this legitimate concern, LePage simply thrust the debate into the same tired “us versus them” argument. The governor could have made the case for better federal forestry practices to protect the Katahdin monument land and the adjacent Baxter State Park. Instead he showed himself to be a partisan lout, and undercut any chance to advance his most salient point.