Roxanne Quimby has been labeled many things in the 27 years since she built a line of beeswax beauty products, sold the business for hundreds of millions of dollars and then turned her attention to Maine’s North Woods.
She has been alternately hailed as a savvy entrepreneur and pilloried as a cold-hearted businesswoman, praised as a visionary conservationist by supporters and demonized by critics as a dangerous environmental crusader.
Yet devotees and detractors agree Quimby is also determined. The question facing Quimby now, however, is can she persuade not only her local critics but federal lawmakers to support her most ambitious endeavor to date: a new national park in Maine?
Quimby has practiced her powers of persuasion recently as she brought her vision of a Maine Woods National Park — created from her own lands — to towns throughout the Katahdin region. In the process, the co-founder of Burt’s Bees convinced several local business and government groups that her idea is at least worth consideration.
Although a modest start, such an outcome would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago in an area where pickup trucks sporting tattered “Ban Roxanne” bumper stickers remain a common sight.
But persuading, say, the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce to entertain the suggestion of a 70,000-acre national park in the heart of Maine’s timber country is one thing. Convincing Maine’s congressional delegation and then the rest of Congress is something else.
“It’s a bottom-up strategy,” Quimby acknowledged in an interview.
Facts indicate it’ll be a long haul to the top — if a Maine Woods National Park is achievable at all.
It has been decades since Congress created a truly new national park, aside from re-designating lands that were already protected under the umbrella of the National Park Service.
Before that can happen, the National Park Service would need to complete a lengthy feasibility study of the proposal, which can only be requested by Congress, the White House or the Department of the Interior.
And Quimby has yet to earn the support of most members of Maine’s congressional delegation, when all four likely are necessary to have a shot with the rest of Congress.
Quimby is aware of those facts. Yet she remains undeterred in her quest to create a new national park in Maine, optimally in time for the park service’s centennial celebration in 2016.
“I have a goal and I think goals are reached with a timeline,” said Quimby, who’s 60 and has two adult children. “But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t extend the timeline. I’m very patient and am prepared to continue my efforts.”
Answering her critics
Those “efforts” center on her offer to donate 70,000 acres east of Baxter State Park to the U.S. Department of the Interior for the creation of a national park. That 70,000-acre figure is a fraction of the 3.2 million-acre proposal touted in the past by groups such as RESTORE: The North Woods and Quimby herself.
To address the concerns of sportsmen, Quimby is also offering to donate to the state of Maine 30,000 acres where hunting, snowmobiling, ATV riding and other forms of more-intensive recreation would be allowed.
Lastly, in an effort to placate critics who contend the National Park Service can barely afford to run existing parks, Quimby has pledged $20 million of her own money and promised to raise an additional $20 million as an endowment to fund the new park’s year-to-year expenses.
“I have put $50-$60 million behind this bet, so it is not just a pipe-dream,” Quimby said during a recent interview. “I am putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak.”
The fact that the land in question would be donated along with a sizable endowment likely would help the proposal win favor with the people who control the purse strings in Congress, according to David Barna, spokesman for the National Park Service.
But “the appropriators,” as Barna calls them, represent just half of two critical sides in Congress. “The authorizers” are the players who actually sign off on a new national park after a thorough review by the park service. And even the park service can’t always convince “the authorizers” to follow the recommendation of a feasibility study.
“As for our track record, we have about a 50-50 shot with Congress,” Barna said. “Congress will do what it wants to do.”
National parks are only one designation within a National Park Service system that includes national recreation areas, national preserves, wild and scenic rivers, battlefields and other historic sites and national monuments. And while national parks draw the most visitors, they represent just 58 of the 394 “units” managed by the park service.
New national parks have come in spurts ever since Yellowstone became America’s first federally designated natural playground in March 1872. Many of the nation’s best-known and most iconic parks — places like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Glacier and Acadia — were authorized in the first 50 years. Another spate came in the 1960s and 1970s.
Since the late-70s, however, the only new parks were lands already managed by the Interior Department as national monuments or recreation areas that were upgraded to full park status.
And congressional authorization does not guarantee that a new national park will be created, at least not in a timely fashion.
Congress authorized the creation of Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, for instance, in December 1974. But it wasn’t until November 2000 that Cuyahoga became a full-fledged national park after more than 25 years as a national recreation area.
Likewise, Congaree Swamp National Park in South Carolina was authorized in 1976 but had to wait until 2003 to have the magic words “national park” officially added to the name.
Park, or something else?
At this point, much of the debate over Quimby’s proposal for a Maine Woods National Park has been over whether to support a feasibility study, much less the creation of a park itself. Only Congress, the president or the Secretary of the Interior can request such a study, and no requests appear forthcoming any time soon.
It’s not unusual for the National Park Service to juggle a dozen feasibility studies for new parks, monuments, battlefields or other national designations at any given time, Barna said. Those feasibility studies — which consider such factors as cost, property ownership and the national significance of the land — result in a recommendation to Congress.
Barna said the park service cannot comment on Quimby’s proposal. But in general, the agency is eager to evaluate possibilities, especially when they are located in the Northeast, which is densely populated yet has few national parks.
“We are always delighted when additional open space is set aside in our country so Americans can go out and recreate and get back to nature,” Barna said.
The National Parks Conservation Association — an independent organization that advocates for the preservation of America’s parks — has also expressed a strong interest in Quimby’s idea. And the organization suggests a majority of Mainers might be on board as well.
A poll commissioned by the organization found that 77 percent of respondents in Maine supported the creation of a new type of national park in partnership with the state. Additionally, 75 percent indicated they would support setting aside 10 to 20 percent of Maine’s North Woods for a public park.
“We would, of course, always be supportive of at least giving the notion of a national park in the North Woods a very careful examination,” said Alexander Brash, the association’s Northeast senior regional director. “We would certainly hope that the elected officials in the state of Maine would be open to at least examining the issue. Open study certainly doesn’t hurt anybody.”
Of course, a national park designation is not the only option available to Quimby and likely would be the most difficult to achieve. Over the past century and especially in recent decades, many national parks — including the Grand Canyon — began as national monuments, which can be accomplished with a presidential designation without Congress.
Additionally, some observers have suggested that Quimby should consider donating her land to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a national forest, perhaps modeled after the enormously popular White Mountain National Forest in neighboring New Hampshire.
As a property of the USDA, national forests are managed for timber and typically allow more opportunities for hunting and mechanized recreation than a national park.
Meanwhile, others have proffered another potential model: New York State’s Adirondack Park.
At roughly 6 million acres, Adirondack Park is larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier and Grand Canyon national parks combined. Half of the land is a state-owned forest preserve that must remain “forever wild” while the other half remains in private hands and is home to farming, commercial forestry and other businesses.
Christopher Beach, a retired Unity College history professor who taught courses on Maine’s North Woods and has given talks about the Adirondack model, said he is not sure which model would work best in the North Woods. But Beach believes the North Woods is a tremendous asset valued by Maine people for its beauty and heritage.
“I do think the national park idea needs study,” Beach said. “I don’t know if it is the best idea. There might be others that are better. But it may be the study that will help develop some of those ideas.”
For her part, Quimby has indicated some flexibility in how her donated lands would be used, saying she is open to considering donating parts of her land as other “units” under the National Park Service umbrella.
But the core 70,000 acres within her proposal should be a national park for ecological, economic and historical reasons, she said.
“The national park designation is the gold standard,” she said. “It would have the biggest return possible in terms of getting word out there that we want to share it with America. People do put national parks on their “must visit” lists. … They bring their children there.”
Although many parks — including most of the landmark parks — were created in controversy, there is little disputing the fact that parks draw tourists and therefore money to an area.
A recent study by the park service determined that park visitors spent $11.9 billion in the regions surrounding parks in 2009. Fifty-six percent of that total was spent by visitors staying in hotels and lodges outside of the park.
Acadia National Park recorded 2.3 million “recreational visits” in 2009, generating $161.5 million in local spending and supporting more than 2,700 jobs. All but roughly $2 million of that money came from what the park service described as “nonlocal visitors.”
To Quimby, such figures demonstrate the potential a Maine Woods National Park would have to help revitalize the economy of the Katahdin region. National parks are a brand, she said, and Quimby believes that a portion of Acadia visitors would avail themselves of the opportunity to visit the North Woods if they had that brand to draw them there.
“I would really like these folks up there in the Millinocket area who have opened small businesses to succeed, because right now they are hanging on by a thread,” Quimby said. “And I know what that feels like having run a small business.”
Even so, Quimby faces ardent opponents who are organizing to counter her attempts to win the hearts of Katahdin region residents.
Among them is Mary Adams, a well-connected conservative activist who has helped wage political numerous campaigns in Maine over the years, including against RESTORE: The North Woods’ proposal for a 3.2 million-acre Maine Woods National Park a decade ago.
Adams recently set up a website, www.dontfenceMEin.us, to help organize opponents of the park proposal. The Garland resident believes what she calls “the no-park army” is still around and is likely just as large as it was nearly decade ago, but renewing the battle cry against a national park is no easy task.
“[The site’s] purpose is to re-establish ourselves because you can’t do much in isolation but together we can do a lot,” Adams said. “This is our wood basket. We are darn lucky to have it and we have it because private landowners have kept it that way all of these years.”
Additionally, Thursday’s 6-0 vote by the Millinocket Town Council to oppose a national park feasibility study illustrates the deep concern among some segments that federal land ownership could harm the local forest industry and kill off the region’s paper mills.
And then there is the challenge of Maine’s congressional delegation.
The one member of Maine’s congressional delegation who has come out in support of a feasibility study is District 1 U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree. Spokesman Willy Ritch said the Pingree believes a park could help boost the region’s economy. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, whose district includes the Katahdin region, is undecided about the study but has indicated he is willing to hear more about Quimby’s proposal.
Both U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have raised concerns about a park and spoken against a feasibility study at this time, saying they would need to see strong support in the populace to support a study.
But as she works to build that bottom-up community support, Quimby also points out that most of the country’s iconic parks — including Acadia — took time to establish and then to become successful attractions.
So while Quimby still aspires — perhaps ambitiously — to see her vision become reality within five years, she is also pledging to continue pitching her case to the Maine public, no matter how long it takes.
“These parks — Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia — these big, marquee parks, they started 100 years ago,” Quimby said. “So taking that view, the idea of taking a lifetime is really insignificant.”