Political Perspectives – A President’s Executive Decision In The Woods

By Jesse Robichaud

A few days before police officers in bulletproof vests dragged pipeline protestors out of a the very first National Energy Board consultations on Energy East in a Montreal conference room, a relatively more civil conversation was taking place at a rural gas station cash register in the State of Maine.

“Those aren’t real jobs,” a disgusted customer told the cashier. “Selling firewood or standing behind a counter selling maps isn’t a real job.”

What the man did not need to say, in this part of the country, is that “real jobs” are in the forest sector, in manufacturing, in trucking and working for the suppliers and vendors who form the links of traditional supply chains.

The cashier, who happened to be standing behind a counter, agreed forcefully.

The pair were discussing President Obama’s controversial decision to short circuit many years of contentious debate over the establishment of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. It’s essentially a national park, but Obama couldn’t call it one without the consent of Congress, which he did not have. He did have the land, donated by the family of Burt’s Bees tycoon Roxanne Quimby, and used his executive powers to proclaim it a national monument.

The backlash the proclamation has generated from pro-development voices in the region proves the “not in my backyard” attitudes and values that have paralyzed pipeline projects in British Columbia, gas plants in Oakville and Mississauga, and natural gas development in New Brunswick are not monopolized by environmental activists or those who simply oppose development.

Katahdin is famously immortalized in the works of Thoreau and famous as the Appalachian Trail’s spectacular granite finish line, which breaches the clouds at 5,267 feet of altitude on Baxter Peak. No one on either side of the years-long divisive debate would argue about the region’s natural splendors and pursuits. Where the friction arises is in the ways these treasured lands can or can’t be used within the national monument’s 87,500 acre boundaries. In Millinocket, the town closest to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, a genuine, uniformed National Parks Service ranger handing out free maps to the new monument immediately rattled off carefully refined talking points about how hunting, fishing, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles would be allowed.

But opponents say the park is a “job killer” that will place the final nails in the region’s embattled forestry industry. Supporters counter by pointing to the potential of hundreds of jobs in tourism, recreation, real estate and other soft benefits. Of course, it is hard to say either side is totally wrong or totally right, and therein lies one of the major challenges facing governments who are left to build public policy amid a fractured landscape of opinion and confrontation that can be enhanced by news media and entrenched interests.

On my own roadtrip to hike Mount Katahdin in the nearby Baxter State Park late last-month, I overheard comments on both sides of the issue. “That’s big business talking, that’s all that is” I heard one man say at a supermarket in Millinocket regarding the philanthropic gift from the Quimby family, which was accompanied by a pledge of $40 million to support the monument’s creation. A park supporter swore the loud opposition is only a vocal minority, and that most people in the region support the move. Maine’s controversial and Trump-supporting Republican governor Paul LePage says the decision was the result of Obama and other Liberal elites overriding the will of the people of his state.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument does more than just demonstrate the sliding scale on which political values can diverge on each side of the Canada-U.S. border. It also highlights the growing tensions between the perspectives of urban and rural residents, the power struggle between federal governments and sub-national governments, as well as the difficulty in developing and measuring social license for natural resource development and major projects.

Consultation has become one of the preeminent political buzz words of our time, and for good reason it has become perhaps the chief challenge for those attempting to fulfill expectations of open, responsive government. President Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both attained power by appealing to the sunny side of the electorate and promising to unite rather than divide.

But on an issue such as the Katahdin Woods and Waters, Obama learned there is a limit to public consultation, particularly when views are so diametrically opposed that one side is not going to like the decision. For him, that limit was the two-term limit on his own presidency. With his time running out, Obama cut through the debate. He made the executive decision.

In Ottawa and in provincial capitals across the country, elected officials and political staff are drawing up consultation schemes and communications strategies around a constellation of hot-button issues related to pipelines, natural resource development, the rights of Indigenous peoples and local landowners, environmental protection and climate policies.

There are more than just two sides at odds in these ongoing debates, and so far Trudeau has deftly catered to most of them. After all, he won big last October as his Conservative and NDP opponents failed to seize on pipeline-related issues in any way that ultimately mattered.

However, Trudeau’s skillful communications tact will, at some point, have to give way to a firm decision. In fact, expectations on most sides of these issues continue to rise, not fall, as regulators continue their work and consultations are deployed. In matters of such high stakes and national importance, there will invariably be winners and losers. The question now is – how long it will take for us to find out who will end up on which side of the Prime Minister’s own executive decision.

Jesse Robichaud is a Consultant at Ensight. He served as an advisor to the Premier of New Brunswick, and worked as political correspondent.