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Lucas St. Clair sat with his wife, small staff and a documentary team around a conference table in his Portland office on a late August morning, waiting pensively for a phone call from the White House, a call that would culminate five years of effort to bring a national monument to Maine's northern woods.
Finally, around 9:30 a.m., Christy Goldfuss, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told St. Clair that President Obama had signed a proclamation on Aug. 24 that would turn the 87,500 acres his nonprofit organization, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., had given the United States into one of the country's newest national monuments, the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
"We worked on this for five years and it felt great," St. Clair says. When he told his mother, Burt's Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby at her remote farm via email, as she has no cell phone reception, she emailed back, "Fantastic. Thank god." Quimby had started the push for a national park in 2001, and in 2011 handed over the effort to St. Clair.
St. Clair, who exudes a quiet confidence when his tall frame enters a room, started his career selling wines at a Seattle restaurant, a job he says taught him a lot about how to read people.
"The menu had thousands of wine choices from $30 a bottle to several thousand dollars," he says. He learned to read customer's motivations for choosing certain wines, whether it be to impress a date or a business prospect.
"That skill set translated into this project," he says, adding that talking to someone in Belfast about conservation is much different than talking to someone in Millinocket.
"What enabled Lucas's great accomplishment is his ability to talk to anyone," says Ethan Hipple, parks director for the City of Portland, who has known St. Clair for 14 years and married St. Clair and his wife, Yemaya, when they all lived in Seattle. "He's one of the most talkative and inquisitive people I've ever met. People don't always agree with him, but they connect with him in a positive way."
The value of the gift, St. Clair says, totals $100 million: $60 million as the price Quimby originally paid for the land, $20 million to supplement federal funds for initial monument operations and another $20 million St. Clair will raise for future development in collaboration with the National Park Foundation.
St. Clair, 38, who was raised in rural Piscataquis County and still enjoys hunting and fishing, especially in the Wassataquoik Stream area of the monument that is surrounded by a white pine forest, put a lot of mileage on himself and his van to gain support for the effort, knocking on doors and stopping fishermen and hikers in the forest.
After failing to get the state's congressional leaders to introduce a bill for a national park in time for the National Park Service Centennial this year, he pivoted last fall to getting national monument status, which requires presidential approval rather than a congressional bill. He garnered local support through businesses and community organizations. He says support by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and U.S. Sen. Angus King helped seal the deal with the White House.
The whole effort, all the meetings and the coordination with other staff didn't wear him down. St. Clair describes himself as extroverted and says, "I get energy being around people and I'm optimistic to a fault. Good ideas usually work."
The monument is already open, and special provisions allow for hunting in certain areas, snowmobiling and other lifestyle activities common to the region.
St. Clair points to studies finding that regions around national parks and monuments benefit economically from their presence.
But he says local history tells an even stronger story. He says 35 years ago, the Millinocket area had the highest per capita income in the state because of the paper mills. He believes the area can resurrect itself in a shorter time to support a national park than did Acadia National Park, which began as Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916 and became Acadia National Park in 1929.
"Bar Harbor grew up around the park, not the other way around," says St. Clair to questions about how quickly the Millinocket area can turn around. He adds that in 1916 Jackson Laboratory, for example, still hadn't been founded, and other laboratories and the town itself grew because of the park. He also expects Canadian tourists due to the monument's close proximity to that country's border.
Responding to criticism that his mother wanted a national park as a family legacy, he said that is not true. The family's name is not on the monument, and the family's actions were done to conserve land, he says. The National Park Service is holding a series of community sessions to get input from local residents about how they'd like to shape the planning process for the new monument.
St. Clair plans to stay involved as the monument develops, saying he hopes the local community plays off of its heritage as an outpost of the north woods community with events like the Christmas festival, antique snowmobile festival and Trails End Festival.
He's also hoping to see the economy diversify, using the millions of acres of trees for applications like fabric, jet fuel and cross-laminated timber. The University of Maine, for example, is developing cross-laminated timber. Other counties, including Europe and Canada, already are using the timber as a strong wood substitute for steel building frames and flooring. And since trees remove carbon dioxide from the air, St. Clair says, using cross-laminated timber can help essentially lock up carbon in the wood, giving new structures a much smaller carbon footprint.
As a next project, he wants to focus on improving the economy of rural Maine, first by lobbying to get fast internet to everyone.
He'd also like to see diversification of the rural economy, and he'll consult with various parties on that goal. "I'd like to see more technology and some consolidation of education," he says. "We need to become more efficient with what we have."