Maine’s next national park? Roxanne Quimby is changing minds about her vision for 70,000 acres of northern Maine
Roxanne Quimby talks about her plans for the land she owns in Millinocket and the surrounding region during a public meeting at the Northern Maine Timber Cruisers snowmobile club in Millinocket on Thursday. More than 100 people attended the meeting at which Quimby took questions from the audience.
Nearly 20 years ago, after Restore: The North Woods unveiled its plan for a 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park, Roxanne Quimby became an immediate fan.
“I’ve always loved the national parks,” she said during an extensive interview recently. “I visit them every chance I can.”
As the founder of Burt’s Bees, a nationally known company she founded in Maine and later moved to North Carolina before selling it in 2003, Quimby also saw the plan in business terms.
“At the time, you could have purchased all that land for $500 million,” she said. “That was also what we spent each year on Doritos. It made me think about how frivolously we treat our money.”
That observation neatly encapsulates what some see as contrary qualities in Quimby, who recently traveled to Millinocket to — for the first time — publicly present her vision for a national park in the north woods.
On the one hand, Quimby is widely viewed as a shrewd businesswoman who also knows how to make a deal when it comes to real estate.
On the other hand, she comes out of the California counter-culture of the 1960s and ’70s, and views private property rights with skepticism. She told a Yankee magazine interviewer in 2008, “To me, ownership and private property were the beginning of the end in this country. Once the Europeans came in, drawing lines and dividing things up, things started getting exploited and over-consumed. But a park takes away the whole issue of ownership. It’s off the table; we all own it and we all share it. It’s so democratic.”
It’s statements like that that drive some people to distraction. Quimby has steadily accumulated land in Maine over the past 10 years, but only for the purpose of giving it back to the public. The whole concept of public ownership is detestable to the forest products industry, and to many who live in the area where Quimby wants to site the national park. Yet the public as a whole seems to support her park idea. Polls consistently show majorities favoring the concept, with support strongest in southern Maine, but significant throughout the state.
Quimby herself sees no contradiction in what she says and does. Once she realized that Restore’s vision of a huge park was not going to happen any time soon, she went to work on her own.
“I asked myself what I could do, what I could contribute,” she said. “For me, this is what I can accomplish in a reasonable length of time.”
Quimby’s plan, presented to a packed house at the Northern Maine Timber Cruisers Clubhouse in Millinocket on May 4, calls for a 70,000-acre national park along the eastern border of Baxter State Park, the 204,000-acre wilderness preserve created by Gov. Percival Baxter and given to the state amid four decades of land acquisition after Baxter left office in 1925.
The triangular-shaped parcel envisioned as the new national park (see map) is mostly owned by Quimby, and fills the space between the park’s eastern boundary and the East Branch of the Penobscot River — a fabled, wild stream featured in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.
On the other side of the East Branch, the east side, Quimby proposes an 80,000-acre national recreation area, which would allow many “traditional” recreational uses, including hunting and snowmobiling, that Quimby would prefer not to see in the national park.
National parks generally don’t allow hunting or ATVs, and snowmobiling is limited. The recreation area is her offer to critics who see her as putting off limits land where they have long hunted, fished and snowmobiled, thanks to permission from previous owners.
George Smith, former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the state’s largest hunting and fishing organization, views it as an “extraordinary offer.”
He said, “I don’t think any Mainer has ever done anything like it, not even Percival Baxter. It’s just a remarkable thing, something I’ve never seen before and don’t expect to ever see again.”
“Extraordinary” is a word that comes up frequently in reviews of Quimby’s visit to Millinocket, as well. Jym St. Pierre, who has labored on behalf of the national park idea for two decades as Maine director of Restore, said the two-hour meeting showed Quimby “completely on top of her game.”
“I’ve seen her in many different contexts, and this was by far her best performance. The questioning was sometimes aggressive, but she handled everything they asked, and did it on her own terms. She was very direct, and very candid,” he said.
St. Pierre said he believes the meeting was a “watershed” in terms of progress toward a park. “Some of the criticism used to come from people who are passionate about landowner rights,” he said. “Well, she owns the land now.”
Who is Roxanne Quimby?
Gradually, perceptions of who Roxanne Quimby is and what she’s up to have begun to shift. At one time, she was seen as a reclusive, if not secretive, figure whose unconventional views about land ownership seemed that much more threatening to the status quo. She says now that was never the case.
“Until 2005, I was running my own business” — she stayed on after the sale — “and it took just about all my time,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had to answer every charge that appeared in a Maine newspaper.”
Now that she lives here full time, she’s been able to give full attention to her work in Maine, she said.
Her interests are varied. In addition to the national park plan, she wants to donate 30,000 acres she owns northeast of Sebec Lake, near Dover-Foxcroft, to the state for a backcountry extension of Peaks-Kenny State Park, which now includes a camping area, beach and 839 acres.
Quimby said she had not yet spoken to Gov. Paul LePage or anyone else in the new administration about the acreage near Peaks-Kenny State Park, which borders land owned by the Penobscot Indian Nation — a culture in which Quimby has a strong interest.
And Quimby has spoken to the Appalachian Mountain Club about donating 7,000 acres she owns that is bisected by the federally protected Appalachian Trial, a parcel known as Big Wilson/Seven Ponds.
She’s also a major supporter of the arts, and is involved in several cultural organizations in Portland, where she lives. One of the sporting camps she recently acquired in the East Branch area will become a retreat for artists.
George Smith said he’s “disappointed” with the response of some sportsmen to Quimby’s new bid to gain public support for the park. “They’re fighting the same old battles, but she’s moved on.”
Smith has attended numerous meetings in which Quimby has spoken with critics of her plans, including sporting groups in the Millinocket area and Town Manager Gene Conlogue.
“She absolutely means what she says, and she’s far from inflexible,” he said.
Quimby hasn’t convinced everyone, however. One persistent critic, Paul Reynolds, publisher of the Northwoods Sporting Journal, described her as “vehemently anti-hunting” in a column published last fall. Reynolds said Quimby is a “shrewd, self-made businesswoman who knows how to get her way,” and said she “will not rest until she sees her wealth turned into a federalized national park.”
‘This time it seems different’
The largely favorable reception Quimby received at the May 4 Millinocket meeting would not have been possible without a complex land deal involving Quimby, the state and private owners that involved fallout from the state’s purchase of the Katahdin Lake addition to Baxter State Park.
Quimby had bought a large parcel near the town center of Millinocket and planned to put it off limits to snowmobiling and hunting, a move that produced a bevy of “Ban Roxanne” bumper stickers — a reference to the “Ban Clearcutting” slogan of two unsuccessful referendums in the 1990s.
Quimby ended up swapping her Millinocket acreage for land the state had acquired in the Wassataquoik Valley area, now the heart of the proposed national park. The swap not only restored full motorized recreational use of the Millinocket land, but it gave sportsmen much better access to more state-owned land to the south of Katahdin Lake that was meant to compensate for the loss of hunting privileges around the lake.
Quimby said she was willing to trade the Millinocket acreage primarily as a favor to the state, which was under heavy criticism from sportsmen after the Katahdin Lake purchase. She said she went above and beyond in this case.
“I put my $6 million up front, before anyone else had stepped forward (to facilitate the swap),” she said. The state asked for, and received from her, a six-month extension to complete the complex transactions, and another extension after that. The agreement was finally signed in December just before the Baldacci administration left office.
Also working in Quimby’s favor is the sudden economic prostration of the Millinocket area.
The “big mill” in Millinocket built by Great Northern — which essentially created “Magic City” in 1898 and was once the largest papermaking facility in the world — closed in 2008. Then, this spring, the East Millinocket mill, which had received additional investment and produced much of the newsprint for Maine newspapers, also closed. The towns built by paper companies were suddenly without an operating paper mill and prospects for reopening either seem dim.
St. Pierre, who spent time talking to townspeople on a recent trip, said, “This time it seems different. People really aren’t expecting the mills to start up again.” In fact, when Quimby announced her planned appearance in May, “Some people said, ‘Maybe she’s going to buy the mills,’” St. Pierre said.
The economy was much on the minds of those who attended the meeting. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who represents the 2nd District and spent most of his working life at the Millinocket mills, said, “Any town that depends on one industry, whether it’s Madawaska, Lincoln, Baileyville or Millinocket, has to be thinking about diversifying its economy. With one industry, you’re always vulnerable.”
Does that mean a national park to the north, with Millinocket the gateway, is looking like a better idea? Michaud is cautious.
“It’s still very early,” he said. Establishing a national park is a lengthy process, he noted, and, “We haven’t begun to look at the total package; we have not looked at any details.”
Proving its worth
The vehicle for doing that would be for Congress to authorize a feasibility study, and for that to happen, someone needs to sponsor a bill. When Restore was campaigning for a park in the 1990s, no representative or senator stepped forward; the Legislature actually passed a resolution opposing a national park.
Quimby has noticed a perceptible change in statements coming from Maine’s U.S. senators and representatives. “Before, it was just, ‘No.’ Now most of them say it’s an idea worth considering, or well-worth considering.”
Her meetings with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins suggested a test for the park. “She said that when her constituents tell her it’s a good idea, then she’ll be willing to sign on,” Quimby said.
Thus, the Millinocket offensive. Quimby said she accepts the notion that local people must support the park for it to become a reality. The next step will be a meeting in July with business owners from the area, which she said she’s convening at their request.
“They want an economic impact statement on what a park will mean for the area,” and she intends to provide it. Not that she thinks there’s much doubt that the impact will be positive.
“Acadia National Park brings in 2.5 million visitors a year and creates $160 million in spending for the local economy,” she said.
She hastened to add that a Maine woods park would not attract similar numbers of visitors or spending. In a sense, she said, critics have made the park proposal bigger than it actually would be.
Burt’s Bees, she said, “had $200 million in annual sales and a $50 million payroll. And this is less than that. It’s really more like a mid-sized business coming to town. It’s not this Darth Vader looming on the horizon.”
Quimby knows that a national park would require increased visitor access, and that would mean road building and motor vehicles in a remote area few people now see or travel through.
Still, the impacts could be minimized, she said.
“We’ve learned about transit in national parks,” such as the Grand Canyon. “We’ve learned about low-impact development and how to preserve landscapes.” Another way of looking at it is that it might “relieve the pressure on Acadia, if there was another national park people could visit.”
When people tell her that no new national parks have been created in the past 40 years, Quimby responds, “That must mean it’s time for another.” She points out that Acadia is the only national park in the Northeast, with the next nearest being Shenandoah in Virginia.
The size of the proposed park has also sparked comment. At 70,000 acres, it would be twice the size of Acadia, but one-third the size of Baxter. For a western park, it would be small, but in the East, it would be among the larger ones.
“I still love the vision of a 3.2-million-acre national park in Maine,” said Quimby, “but I know it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. This is what I can do now.” In her view, the fitting date for creation of the park would be 2016 — the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Park Service.
George Smith has become, perhaps despite himself, an admirer of Roxanne Quimby.
“She’s tough, she’s fair, and she never goes back on her word,” he said.
Nevertheless, he doesn’t think a national park will come to pass.“There’s still too much going against it, too many obstacles,” he said.
Smith thinks Quimby should scale down her ambitions. He acknowledged that creating a national forest instead, which would allow timber harvesting, wouldn’t meet her goals, but there are other options, he said. “Maybe a Wild and Scenic River designation, like the Allagash. The East Branch is a wonderful place,” he said. On the other hand, the Allagash “doesn’t bring that many people to Maine anymore,” and increased visitation is one of Quimby’s goals.
Quimby seems determined that the park is her objective, and nothing else. She would like more support, however. “Some of the people you’d think would be speaking out are silent,” she said.
Maine’s largest environmental groups, for example, have long stayed out of the fray. Judy Berk, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said, after checking with Lisa Pohlman, the group’s new executive director, that the NRCM “hasn’t taken a position on the park, so we have no comment.”
Ted Koffman, executive director of Maine Audubon, did offer a brief statement after conferring with staff. It reads, “Maine Audubon urges Congress to conduct a study of what a new national park could mean for Maine — both good and bad.”
In her long campaign for the park, Quimby has come to recognize the parallels with the origins of both Acadia and Baxter State Park, which she sees as typical of park-building in the East. “In the Western states, the federal government already owned the land, but in the East, someone had to acquire it.”
The story of Baxter and his efforts to build a wilderness park after the Legislature refused any appropriation for it is well-known. In the case of Acadia, it was George Dorr and the Rockefeller family who were the principal donors, and they also encountered local resistance to their plans.
But Quimby finds significant differences between her quest and the earlier campaigns.
Baxter’s struggles to acquire land were considerable, “but that was at the height of the paper economy, when it was super-charged,” she said. “The paper companies didn’t want to sell land because they saw it as their financial base.” By now, though, the value of land has eroded. “I’ve never had trouble buying any land I wanted,” Quimby said. “The only question was the price.”
And there was a patrician air to Baxter that she doesn’t share. “Men seem to have this thing about having places named for them,” she said. “That’s never been something I wanted for myself.”
And the founders of Acadia all came from inherited wealth, while she worked her way up, she points out. “I don’t know a lot of important people and I don’t travel in their social circles,” she said.
She may, though. Quimby was recently named to the National Park Foundation — an appointment that alarmed critics — and has met with the U.S. Park Service director, whose wife, she noted, is a native of Aroostook County.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, too, has been challenged by President Barack Obama to create a legacy in public lands comparable to Stewart Udall, who served under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. “I looked it up,” Quimby said. “There were 19 new parks created on his watch.”
To some observers, it’s the lack of discussion of a national park, rather than its alleged lack of viability, that’s the odd thing.
In a recent column, Maine Sportsman publisher Jon Lund said that while Gov. Angus King opposed the Maine woods park proposal while in office, when his term was over, “He set off with his family in a motor home, crisscrossing the country, visiting national parks.” King did not “visit places with industrial forest easements. Nor did he aim for state parks, which vastly outnumber national parks.”
National parks, Lund concludes, are the magnets for visitors.
Restore’s St. Pierre thinks the tide is turning on Quimby’s plan.
“At the time history is being made, you never quite know that it’s happening,” he said. But the Millinocket meeting, he said, may well have been that moment. “It’s finally begun to dawn on people that this is part of their future.”