While many North Woods residents gnash their teeth over the possibility of a national park in their region, a businesswoman is quietly buying up land she hopes will be part of the federal preserve.
Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt’s Bees, has bought up 8,500 acres in Piscataquis County, all within the proposed boundaries of the controversial 3.2 million-acre national park and preserve. Her most recent purchase, 285 acres around Little Greenwood Pond in Elliotsville Township, was completed just last week.
Last month, she bought 77 acres on Mount Kineo in Moosehead Lake.
Her goal, Quimby said during a weekend interview at the Winter Harbor bakery owned by her son, is to buy up as much land as possible to get it off the market and out of the hands of developers.
The land she has bought so far generally will be left alone so it can recover from heavy logging, she said. In the future, campgrounds and visitor centers could be built on some parcels. She hopes ultimately to donate the land she buys to the federal government for inclusion in the proposed national park.
So far, the national park is nothing more than the dream of RESTORE: The North Woods, a Massachusetts-based group that has advocated its creation for years. The National Park Service has said it has no money to buy such a large area and is hesitant to act in areas where local objection to a new park runs high.
Quimby, 50, is a member of RESTORE’s board of directors. Like a modern-day Percival Baxter, she hopes to nudge the park from dream to reality by buying up the land herself. Baxter, heir to a canning fortune, was a Maine governor in the 1920s who spent the years after his term acquiring tracts that became the state park that bears his name.
Quimby’s purchases to date are: 285 acres around Little Greenwood Pond for $375,000; 77 acres on Mount Kineo for $350,000; and the combined purchase of 2,351 acres along Big Wilson Stream in Elliotsville and 5,800 acres in northern Township 8 Range 11 for $2.2 million.
The Mount Kineo land, which is next to state-owned property on the island, had already been approved by the Land Use Regulation Commission for 12 house lots. The Greenwood Pond property is next to Borestone Mountain, a preserve owned by the Audubon Society, and the Township 8 Range 11 parcel is next to Big Reed Preserve, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy.
In addition to her own purchases, Quimby donated $2 million to The Nature Conservancy to help finance its purchase of 185,000 acres along the Upper St. John River.
She also is working on another $2.2 million project in the North Woods that, she said, she was told not to discuss.
Basically, Quimby said, she is plowing most of Burt’s Bees profits into land sales in Maine. Last year, the company, which makes all-natural lip balm, soaps and candles and has experienced explosive growth, had sales of more than $30 million.
Quimby said that at some point, the company either will be bought out or will go public. Either scenario would mean more cash for land purchases, she said with a grin.
“You can’t derive long-term satisfaction by filling little jars with cream,” said Quimby, who came to Maine in the 1970s because it was the only place she could buy land with the $3,000 she had. She began filling little jars with cream – making beeswax candles was actually her first commercial venture – with Burt Shavitz, another back-to-the-lander, to make a living after losing the three part-time waitress jobs she worked to support herself and her twins, Lucas and Hannah. She has since bought back Shavitz’s share of the company to become its sole owner.
Now that she is wealthy, she sees a responsibility to give back to the land that sustained her during her early days in Maine spent in a tent without electricity or running water.
“I can think of no better thing to do with Burt’s Bees profits than to return them to the earth,” Quimby said between bites of salad at the popular Momma’s Boy Bakery.
Quimby said a national park presents the perfect way to protect one of the last great wild areas on the East Coast. Much of the land is already for sale, so it makes sense to buy and secure its future as a protected place, she said. In recent years, logging companies have sold millions of acres of timberland with about a quarter of the state’s land base changing hands.
Quimby lived in Guilford for 20 years before Burt’s Bees took off, then moved to Durham, N.C., seven years ago to be closer to its markets and a large work force. Quimby lived in North Carolina for only two years before retreating to Maine, this time to a home on the coast in Winter Harbor.
Even if she personally didn’t tromp around a vast North Woods preserve, knowing such a place existed would make her feel more at peace, she said.
As proposed, the park and preserve would cover a swath of privately owned timberland stretching 60 miles from Millinocket west to the Quebec border and 30 miles north from Greenville to Clayton Lake. It would encompass well-known landmarks such as Moosehead Lake and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. It would surround Baxter State Park, which would remain a separate entity.
Not everyone shares Quimby’s vision. Last fall, governing bodies in the two largest communities near the proposed park, Greenville and Millinocket, passed resolutions opposing a North Woods national park, as did the Piscataquis County commissioners. The Bangor City Council also announced its opposition to the park.
The most frequently given reason for opposition is that the park would shut down logging operations and harm the area’s economy.
Quimby said such arguments are bunk. In fact, she said, very few people derive a living from the woods. She says most people do as she did before she became a wealthy businesswoman: They cut some wood, farm some vegetables, make some crafts to sell at fairs.
“I lived there for a long time. I ran a business there. The economy there is in shambles and it has been for 100 years,” she said.
“There’s not a lot to damage up there. I don’t see how a park can hurt.”
While there are vocal critics, three statewide polls last year found that a majority of Mainers supported the idea of a national park in the North Woods. While support was stronger in the southern part of the state, there was still strong approval for the concept in northern Maine, the pollsters found.
True, many of the jobs created by a national park would be in the service sector, such as workers in hotels and in restaurants. But there also would be new opportunities for guides and store owners and others, she said.
As for economic development, Quimby said, she bought the most expensive property a local real estate agent had listed in Little Greenwood Pond. The agent received a 10 percent commission on the $375,000 selling price, probably the most money the agent has made in a long time, Quimby said.
In addition, she said, Maine’s strong property rights ethic – which is sometimes raised as an objection to the park – actually works to her favor because people accept the notion that she can do whatever she wants with a piece of land after she has bought it. Waging her battle with money, she said, means she doesn’t have to argue with people about her philosophy of protecting the land.
Another objection raised by many is that national parks are restrictive and that traditional Maine activities such as hunting and snowmobiling wouldn’t be allowed. According to RESTORE’s own literature, a portion of the 3.2 million acres would be set aside as a park, where hunting and snowmobiling would be prohibited. But the majority of the land would be managed as a preserve where those activities could occur.
Quimby said 3.2 million acres should be big enough to accommodate everyone. There are places where snowmobiling and hunting would be OK. But there also should be places where people are not allowed to go, she said.
The same goes for the land she is buying, before a national park – if it ever comes to pass – is established.
“What I’m asking for is respectful use of the property,” Quimby said.