The owner of Burt’s Bees wants to donate her land for the creation of a national park. But many Mainers are wary of the proposed Maine North Woods park, calling it a federal land grab. It’s the same lament heard since the National Park System was established nearly a century ago, and is particularly ironic in a year that’s seeing record NPS visits. Kurt Repanshek, editor of AJ’s newest affiliate, National Parks Traveler, takes a look at the situation.
“Just the fact that there’s this large ecosystem that’s intact, where there are no people living, there’s no commercial development, and the native species still run the roost up there, that in itself is somewhat unusual for the Northeast, for the East Coast at all,” says Roxanne Quimby. “And to preserve that ecosystem with its waterways, its moose and deer and beaver and brook trout and all the rest of the species that live there…there’s even Canada lynx up there.”
So strongly does Quimby, who built a fortune making candles and personal care products under the Burt’s Bees label, believe the landscape is worthy of “national park” status that she has offered to transfer roughly 70,000 acres of her land that butts up to Baxter State Park to the National Park Service.
The gesture, while seen as grand by many, is looked down upon by others who believe Maine’s woods exist to be logged or that having the federal government in the backyard in the form of a national park would create too many “restrictions and rules.”
“We have the American way and democracy and yet one person with deep pockets and tunnel vision is forcing her will on the masses,” Mike Madore, a member of the Millinocket Town Council, told the Bangor Daily News back in August. “That is not democracy. That is dictatorship.”
Quimby, though, isn’t forcing the issue. Her 70,000 acres — a large swath of watershed cut by the East Branch of the Penobscott River, a landscape dotted with timber, bogs, lakes, and ponds and streams — won’t be given over to the government without the support of Maine’s politicians and residents, she says.
“Right now what we’re trying to do is get some buy-in from the local folks for a feasibility study,” she said during a long phone conversation last week. “And then if we can do that, then perhaps we can convince our [U.S] senators to support a feasibility study. Right now they don’t. So if we get local buy-in to put pressure on the senators to support a feasibility study, that’s kind of the route we’re taking.”
Talk of creating a national park in Maine’s North Woods has been kicking around for roughly 20 years. The drivers behind Restore The North Woods have long envisioned a 3.2-million-acre park, one that would be 1 million acres larger than Yellowstone, and the movement in part grew out of economics, because since the mid-1990s Maine logging sales have been fading and timber towns like Millinocket are shuttering their mills. Today Millinocket’s unemployment rate is more than double the national average. Quimby argues that a park would create the tourism spark the area needs.
“I think that, superficially, if you are comparing say a chambermaid to a millworker, that the millworker does make more money by the hour. But tourism I think is valuable in that it can provide entrepreneurs with opportunities,” she says. “And the entrepreneurs have the possibility of making a decent wage.”
It also can bolster gateway towns, says Alex Brash, the Northeast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The appeal of North Woods has reached all the way to Washington, D.C., where Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was so intrigued by the possibility that he and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis traveled to Millinocket in mid-August to meet the locals and hear their thoughts on the proposal. The two didn’t promote the idea, but rather tried to answer questions from those on both sides of the issue.
If one of the concerns of those who oppose the idea is that a national park carries tight rules on what can and can’t be done within its borders, Adirondack State Park in New York, the largest state park in the country, at some 6.1 million acres, could be an alternate model, since Adirondack has looser regulation on snowmobiles, mountain biking, and hunting, and comprises farmlands, towns and villages within its boundary. That model — a park that encompasses public and private lands and even villages — is also seen in England.
Quimby’s land, together with Baxter, would create a park of nearly 300,000 acres. Adding in local communities would make it even larger and could allow sustainable logging, if economical.
And there is a model for this kind of use within the federal structure already, says Ron Tipton of the NPCA, who points to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area as a model of “multiple partners and more limited NPS ownership,” he says.
One goal of the federal park system is moving beyond the island-of-no-development model, so that species and habitats aren’t confined to what become future zoos — the only places where any wildness remains. Which is why North Woods is attractive if it allows a more Adirondack-like scale, with what NPCA’s Brash calls, “corridors of connectivity.” He cites as an example the need for wilderness corridors between Glacier and Yellowstone, “so the grizzlies from Glacier can still find the grizzlies in Yellowstone every once in a while. I think clearly if we’re going to maintain the ecological integrity to a reasonable extent in our country, we’re going to have to figure out how to have these kinds of mixed landscapes.”
If Quimby’s successful in bequeathing her land for a park, she wouldn’t be the first private national parks benefactor. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., spent tens of millions of dollars in either creating or adding to Grand Teton National Park, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite National Park, and Shenandoah National Park.
George Dorr spent four decades of his life and much of his own fortune to see Acadia gain national park status. Study Maine’s history and you’ll learn about Percival Baxter’s donation that led to the state park named after him. These individuals and their determination and perseverance give no small measure of resolve to Quimby.
“That’s very inspiring to see what people have been done in the past, and a great inspiration to me,” she says. “And I’ve read a lot about them, because in my moments of doubt I need to hear that other people who have tried to create parks also had a lot of pushback, and a lot of challenges, a lot of local resistance. I find it inspiring to know that they overcame that resistance.”
This is a condensed version of a longer story that appears at National Parks Traveler. Read it in its entirety here.
This environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.