Opponents of designating a national monument in the Katahdin region said it would threaten industry and put access to some outdoor activities at risk. Six years later, the reality is much different.

Far from causing problems, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the 87,500-acre park signed into existence by President Obama in 2016, has become part of the area’s comeback.

Now, there’s a bill before the U.S. Senate that would expand the park, better connecting it to Millinocket, the town at the center of the region, and giving the Katahdin region one more thing to cheer about.

It wasn’t that long ago that most of the news coming out of the area was bad.

Less than a decade ago, as the last remnants of the Great Northern Paper Co. were being sold off for scrap, a Press Herald headline read, “How much farther can Millinocket fall?

Now, there’s no doubt the Katahdin region reached its nadir and is on the way up, thanks to the work of local leaders who embraced a future in which outdoor recreation and green energy are at the center of a vibrant community.

At the former GNP site in East Millinocket, there are plans for a community solar farm as well as a plant to recycle old solar panels. Other projects include the production of wood-derived biofuels and climate-friendly fertilizer.

They could be joined by a data center, whose rows of servers would be cooled by cold water from the nearby river.

Across the river, there’s a series of high-tech Tesla batteries, a key addition to the electrical grid that will allow renewable power to be stored when it isn’t immediately needed.

And while new and exciting industrial opportunities are taking hold, the outdoor economy of the Katahdin region continues to grow.

Baxter State Park and Katahdin itself, as always, are huge draws, with the popularity of the Appalachian Trail driving big increases in use over the last decade. All around the region, new investments are being made to add to the offerings in the area and take advantage of its popularity.

The national monument is a big part of that. The number of visitors each year, around 40,000, does not compare to the most popular state parks. But it is a good start, and the potential of the area is immense.

The monument’s 17-mile loop road, its most popular feature, is an accessible way to view the area and get a taste of the Maine wilderness. The rivers within the monument’s borders, too, are a draw, and could be an even bigger one in time, as more people find out about the opportunities within the monument — and they become easier to reach.

The bill before the Senate takes aim at that last part. Introduced by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and co-sponsored by Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, the bill would allow the National Park Service to acquire land to create a new entrance at the park’s southern boundary, near Millinocket.

Now, the closest entrance is about an hour’s drive from the region’s most populated town, discouraging some visitors from making the trek.

Under the bill, the Park Service could also acquire buildings outside the park for administration and visitor services. The property cannot be acquired by eminent domain, and hunting, fishing and snowmobiling rights on acquired land are protected.

The connection directly to Millinocket will help the monument capitalize on its assets. Local businesses can do the same. One local entrepreneur says the monument helped grow his business as much as 10% already, leading him to expand. No doubt others will experience the same as the monument becomes better known, and easier to enjoy.

All the while, access to motorized recreation such as snowmobiling or ATVing remains strong, and those activities will continue to be a big part of the Katahdin-area economy.

Making sure all of the area’s assets and activities are respected is no small task.

But, as the Millinocket region continues to show, the rewards are more than worth it.

Reprinted from the Portland Press Herald