Part 16 in a series: What’s the next national park?
Roxanne Quimby owns a lot of land, and she’s ready to give it away.
The founder of Burt’s Bees, a well-known company that makes a wide range of skin, hair, and tooth care products entirely from natural ingredients, Quimby has used part of her fortune to purchase land in the North Woods of her ancestral state of Maine. She has one goal in mind: to hold this land privately until the time comes when she can give it to the public.
One of Quimby’s properties, a nearly 70,000-acre parcel east of Baxter State Park, where the Appalachian Trail comes to an end at Katahdin, could become a new Maine Woods National Park . Quimby has offered the densely forested area to the National Park Service as a gift.
That is, it could become a park if she can convince Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to go ahead with a study to determine the feasibility of turning this land into a national park.
“If you look at any map of the U.S., the Maine Woods stands out because you don’t see all kinds of public roads and towns,” said Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods, an organization that has led the charge for creation of a national park in the Maine Woods. “If you look at an image of North America at night, it’s the biggest black spot in that part of the continent. It’s a wonderful anachronism. It’s like finding a long forgotten treasure in your grandmother’s attic.”
Shortly after Quimby made the land offer to National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis in May 2011, Salazar and Jarvis held a public meeting at northern Maine’s Millinocket High School to test the idea with area residents. “It was a full house,” said Michael Kellett, executive director of RESTORE: The North Woods. “Secretary Salazar explained that there was a proposal on the table, and he wanted to come up here and ask people what they thought. He had on blue jeans and a cap and a work shirt, and he talked about his heritage in Colorado in one of the poorest counties in the country. About half the people there spoke in favor of a reconnaissance survey. He said he could authorize that, but he wanted to find out what people thought.”
Salazar also heard from a vocal group who opposed the project. “Afterward, he let it be known that he would be willing to do the survey, but his friend Susan Collins didn’t want it.”
Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), a native of the northern Maine city of Caribou whose family is in the lumber industry, represents an area long affected by the exodus of much of the timber industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When clear-cut logging had removed all of the best trees from northern Maine by the late nineteenth century, loggers took advantage of the new roads and railroads and moved to the Midwest lake states and the Pacific Northwest to continue their lumbering. Meanwhile, builders began to use more concrete and steel in construction projects, and coal replaced wood as a fuel, reducing the demand for logging. In the late twentieth century, mechanization in the woods and automation in the mills further reduced the jobs available in the forest industry. Today, many residents of northern Maine struggle to make a living.
“[Collins] still thinks there’s a future for logging in northern Maine,” said Kellett. “She doesn’t like taking land out of the timber base. But this land is privately owned, and it would never be logged anyway. We’re talking about private land that Roxanne wants to donate.”
While Quimby’s donation worries some of the area’s residents, their real concern is RESTORE’s larger plan for Maine’s north woods, of which Quimby’s land could represent a starting point. In all, RESTORE hopes to protect 3.2 million acres of woodland as a Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. “Our goal is to have Roxanne’s land protected by the National Park Service centennial in 2016,” said Kellett. “This would be the largest single national park land donation in United States history. Once that park is created, we think the people of Maine will realize what a benefit it is, and want to expand it.”
That’s exactly what scares members of an organization called Preserve Maine Traditions, which loudly opposes Quimby’s land donation or any other presence of the National Park Service in northern Maine. “PMT is a citizens group committed to preserving Maine’s cultural heritage and land use traditions,” the group’s website explains.
The site lists what it deems the perils of creating this national park: increased law enforcement, toll booths, the threat of government land grabs through eminent domain, bans on hunting, snowmobiling and structures (like ice fishing shacks) on park property; loss of tax revenue, closed roads, and boat horsepower restrictions on lakes and ponds.
While some of these things are possible if the land becomes a national park, other National Park Service designations would not require dramatic changes in land usage. Some of the land could become a national preserve or recreation area, for example, where hunting, snowmobiling, ice fishing shacks, boating, and other activities would be allowed.
A poll administered by Zogby International in July 2010 showed that 75 percent of respondents were in favor of establishing a new national park in the Maine Woods. An informal survey conducted by the Bangor Daily News in April 2011 produced virtually the same result.
“There’s no other place in the U.S. today where we can have this big public debate on whether to create an Alaskan-scale national park and preserve,” said St. Pierre, who has worked on this project since 1995. “In the early 1990s, Congress appropriated money for a Northern Forest Lands Study, which documented that this forest was of national significance. The heart of that area in Maine is where we have shone a bright light and said, ‘This is the best of the best.’ Roxanne Quimby wants to do something good for all Americans for all time by donating her land for a new national park.”
With major changes on the horizon in Maine’s federal-level political scene—the catalyst for which is Senator Olympia Snowe’s (R-Maine) recent announcement that she will not run for reelection—Maine may have an opportunity to move its national park plans forward.