by Doug Rooks
It’s truly hard to imagine why Roxanne Quimby told an interviewer recently that Maine is “a welfare state,” among other uncharitable remarks.
A self-made businesswoman turned conservationist, Quimby has been tirelessly promoting a Maine woods national park. She’s used proceeds from the sales of her highly successful business, Burt’s Bees, to buy more than 100,000 acres of Maine timberland, and wants to donate 70,000 acres along the Penobscot River’s East Branch bordering on Baxter State Park to form the nucleus of a new national park.
It would be the state’s second, after the wildly popular Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island.
It must be said that Quimby isn’t always an adept advocate for her own ideas. She’s tangled repeatedly with ATV and snowmobile clubs over access to her lands, and angered hunters by declaring some of her acreage off limits.
But her words in the interview, published online by Forbes magazine, tapped into a different vein of resentment, which goes back to her critical comments about her adopted state after she moved Burt’s Bees to North Carolina. Four years ago, Quimby told a Yankee magazine writer that, for Maine, it’s been pretty much all downhill since the European settlers introduced private property and drove out the Indians.
Lately, though, she had been more disciplined and focused. Her campaign for at least a feasibility study of the national park was showing gains. The Millinocket Town Council is still opposed to the idea, but various other area councils declared themselves in favor. The Katahdin chamber of commerce, which includes Millinocket, voted unanimously for a study after a Quimby’s presentation last summer.
More crucially, there’s movement among a congressional delegation once dead set against a study, which Congress must authorize. 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree favors it, and cites surveys showing Mainers like the concept. 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud, who represents northern Maine and opposed the park in the past, now says he wants to hear more from constituents. Both are Democrats.
Maine’s two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins give the park short shrift, but have been more cautious recently. That changed when Quimby’s ill-advised remarks to Forbes were reported locally.
Snowe focused on the technical aspects, saying through a spokesman, “A feasibility study is not an assessment of whether a federal park is best for the region’s economy and community, but rather whether this land is suitable to be a part of the National Park System.” True, but it’s only one factor, and Quimby has offered to conduct economic studies.
Collins’s spokesman threw caution to the winds and said the senator “believes a new national park in northern Maine would likely spell the end to the working forest that has provided thousands of good jobs.”
That’s nonsense. We’re not talking about the 3.2 million acre dream that Restore: the North Woods put forth 20 years ago. That might have crimped timber production, but a 70,000-acre park, or even one twice that large, would hardly make a dent.
The original argument against the national park was that it would expropriate private land. Quimby eliminated that objection by buying the land and offering to give it away. Property rights advocates can hardly object.
The bigger question, which a study could help answer, is whether this particular portion of the Maine woods is worthy of federal interest. Yet the “thousands of good jobs” Collins’s office refers to have been steadily trickling away, and, according to a new state study, Maine will be growing far more fiber over the next generation than it has the capacity to use.
The latest to-do over the national park messenger may indeed set back Quimby’s plans, but she’s playing for the long haul. The message itself is powerful. A national park could play a small but significant part in getting northern Maine’s economy going again. It would be foolish to dismiss the possibility before we know the potential.
Douglas Rooks has contributed to Maine editorial pages for 25 years, and writes for a variety of state, regional and national publications. He’s served as editor of Maine Times and editorial page editor for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, and lives in West Gardiner.