As National Monument Controversy Continues, Dueling Sides Should Draw Lessons from Nepal

There are a few staple topics for current Maine media: drugs, the paper industry, comments by Governor LePage, and the proposed national monument by Baxter State Park. So far, this blog has touched on the first three. I figure it is about time to talk about the fourth.

Elliotsville Plantation, Inc. (EPI) wants to give the federal government a patch of land near Baxter to be designated a national monument, along with an endowment to cover operating costs. To generalize, debate on the issue has been split between those who don’t want federal government control over the land for various reasons—a group that includes many area locals—and those who think it would be great for the economy and environmental conservation.

Fundamentally, both sides identify the same problem—that the Maine economy is struggling—but hold very different ideas about how a national monument (or future national park) would affect that problem. Opponents think the designation would further damage timber industries. Proponents think there would be a significant boost from tourism. That economic problem everyone is worried about is directly tied to international issues, primarily through trade, which I have covered before. But there also may be lessons to be learned from other countries’ experiences with national parks. Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal—somewhere I am lucky enough to have visited myself—may prove to be one such place. It is a very unique park to say the least, and it is undoubtedly very different from Maine, but its story shares some themes that may be useful.

View on a clear morning in Thameteng, a small village in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Photo by author.

View on a clear morning in Thameteng, a small village in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Photo by author.

A few thousand Sherpas live in the park itself, and they are generally either subsistence farmers or involved in the tourist trade, so they need the land to survive. They need the trees for wood and water to drink. But the Government of Nepal has very good reason to want to conserve the land in Sagarmatha as a national park. It is home to a point of particular interest: Mt. Everest.

Forest cover in the area has been declining rapidly since tourism began in the ‘60s. The influx of tourists greatly magnified the need for wood, particularly for construction. Given that the only mode of transportation in the park is walking, building materials hiked in from outside the park can be expensive and in short supply, so locals look to use what’s around them as much as possible. This need can conflict with the government’s eye for pristine conservation; in addition to the value of that goal in itself, the government likely sees it as a way to maintain the park’s appeal to international tourists. They want these tourists to boost the national economy as much as the locals want the tourists to boost their own. Of course many, if not most, of the locals agree about the need for conservation, since they are not interested in seeing their homeland deforested, especially given the sacred status of much of it. But the “how?” has been contentious.

The Sherpas largely opposed the park’s establishment in 1976, and while they are now predominantly supportive, there are still disagreements. In the mid-2000s, many local villages set up “community conservation areas” (CCAs) to help manage the surrounding land in a sustainable way according to the locals’ wishes, something that was seen internationally as a best practice for balancing conservation with local needs. There were many spots that the Sherpas had effectively been managing as CCAs for centuries, but they began to recognize more. Nepal as a whole actually won praise for this progressive conservation style, and the government did not raise opposition at first. But in 2008 the Sherpas declared a Khumbu Community Conservation Area that encompassed the entirety of Sagarmatha National Park, and the government and press lambasted it as an attempt by the Sherpas to undercut the authority of the national park. As the Sherpas saw it, they were merely formally declaring the methods for conservation they had practiced for centuries. But it created a new rift that had yet to be fully ironed out by the time I visited the park in 2011. People were still talking about the tensions surrounding the management of the forests.

A monk walks through a village on the road to Namche Bazaar. Photo by author.

A monk walks through a village on the road to Namche Bazaar. Photo by author.

The overlap with Maine’s situation obviously doesn’t run too deep; Mt. Katahdin is not Mt. Everest, and few people around there are subsistence farmers. But there is a takeaway that is absolutely crucial: you need local buy-in for a park to be beneficial for everyone and ultimately to be successful.

Process matters. In Khumbu, the establishment of Sagarmatha National Park drastically changed the economic fortunes of the Sherpa people for the better. But conflict over the park’s management, and effectively their right to govern themselves, left a sense of injustice among many, no matter if they were materially better off. The same could happen in Maine if a national monument were to be designated as local opposition still runs deep. At this point, the likelihood of park opponents coming around to the idea may only decrease as the issue becomes increasingly partisan. The situation is not helped by the general lack of hard facts being disseminated on the issue. Some of the arguments of both the opposition and the proponents hinge on statements that should be easily proven true or false, but the information required to do so has not been widely available. Of course, such hard facts tend not to matter too much once things have become solidly red-versus-blue, but hopefully things haven’t gotten that far yet.

To give an example, the dispute over whether or not logging will be able to continue in the lands abutting the proposed national monument area should be an easily resolved claim. Are there any regulations regarding timber harvesting on lands abutting national monuments, yes or no? Will logging trucks still be able to safely use the roads surrounding the land, yes or no? The best we have in the media so far is some people saying yes and some people saying no. The study on logging traffic commissioned by EPI that gets referenced in such news stories is two pages long. It lists a couple of parcels of land used for logging around the proposed national monument area and the roads used by logging trucks, but offers far too little detail to convincingly declare how wood flow would be affected. They do not seem to have spoken to any loggers, for instance (or if they did, they did not reference them in the text). Given how sparse the study is, EPI can point to it and say “everything will be fine,” while others, such as the Professional Logging Contractors association, can look at it and say “everything will be horrible.” Moreover, the Department of the Interior does not help itself by waiting until after a national monument is designated to study things like road use. Constituents need to know these things beforehand to make an informed decision.

With few hard facts to point to, people are left agreeing with whoever they already feel more affinity for. Park supporters are not doing enough to disseminate information to those who need it and opponents are exploiting that vacuum with their own unclear arguments. This is not the making of a consensus-driven policy. It’s the kind of confusion-based politics that creates a lot of angry people in Maine, Nepal, and everywhere in between.

The solution, as I see it, is twofold. First, detailed studies need to be done on the specific issues that are driving the contention. If these have already been done, they need to not only be made public and receive greater media coverage, but they need to be discussed directly with those affected. Which brings me to the second component: dialogue. It is hard to tell if there is not enough dialogue between the park’s proponents and opponents or if it has just been ineffective, but either way, it seems few people are being convinced. That can only be overcome by people getting in a room, identifying the problems, and naming solutions. It is possible that this moment has passed and the issue has now become too wrapped up in party identities for leaders on either side to have level-headed discussion. But at the very least, these discussions need to happen with the constituents.

Otherwise, even if a national monument is successfully designated, management disputes risk boiling over again and again if those affected—particularly those who were supposed to benefit—never wanted the thing in the first place. Those in Khumbu know this; hopefully Mainers won’t have to learn it for themselves.


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Phoenix McLaughlin

About Phoenix McLaughlin

Phoenix McLaughlin works at the National Endowment for Democracy helping to foster political development in Asia. Phoenix lives in Washington, D.C. now, but was born and raised in Norway, Maine. In between, he has studied and/or worked in Colorado, Nepal, India, France, Ethiopia, and Augusta. All opinions expressed on this blog are solely his own and do not represent his current or former employers.