Park proposal stays afloat, an acre at a time

Roxanne Quimby moved to Maine in 1975 with $3,000 and a yen to live close to the land. Now, having made a mint in her own line of natural skin-care products, Burt's Bees, she's a multimillionaire with big plans for her fortune.

Ms. Quimby, it seems, is acquiring acres in Maine faster than an Oklahoma sooner. Except she hopes to give it away just as quickly - to help the state get a new national park.

But timberland is carefully guarded here, where paper is to the state's identity what oranges are to Florida. Ever since 1992, when a conservation group called Restore: The North Woods proposed a Maine Woods National Park, the idea has met opposition from loggers. The state Legislature has even passed a resolution against the measure.

Now Quimby's quest, although it has a certain Yankee ingenuity, is adding fresh timber to the controversy. Opponents claim it would replace dwindling jobs in the woods with low-paying seasonal ones.

Quimby and others who support the park say it would boost tourism and rejuvenate the troubled regional economy. Moreover, they point out, it would cover just one-fifth of the state's 17 million acres of commercial forestland.

The Maine Woods, a region in northern and eastern Maine, is dotted with lakes and laced by trout streams draining rugged peaks. It's home to bears, moose, and the endangered lynx. The proposed 3.2 million-acre park would be larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined, and encompass more than a thousand miles of hiking trails.

Greenville, on the shore of Moosehead Lake, would be a gateway to the park. This town has an especially close connection to the surrounding woods: Its largest taxpayer is a power plant fueled by wood chips.

John Morrell, owner of the local Ace Hardware - a site that has milled or sold lumber for more than a century - fears the park would "trash the tax base." Besides, he adds, forest practices are improving, and good public access already exists.

But for Quimby, more is at stake than a playground, or even a national park: "Maybe this could be a turning point for the environment, and for how America is going to think about our role in the degradation of the environment."

To be sure, the park still faces serious hurdles. The requisite feasibility study would require an act of Congress, and Maine's congressional delegation opposes the idea. Still, polls show Mainers support the park.

Moreover, Quimby is not about to relent. She's purchased more than 8,000 acres at a cost of more than $3 million, and a pending acquisition includes another 5,700 acres.

Sitting on the seaside ledges of Acadia National Park, near her home in Winter Harbor, Quimby recounts her journey from unlikely CEO to environmental crusader. The Cambridge, Mass., native came to Maine with her soon-to-be husband, searching for a home in the heart of the country. They wound up in Guilford - where their $3,000 bought 30 acres - and settled into a life without electricity, running water, or a car. For several years, they were growing, gathering, or trading for most of their needs.

But when she and her husband divorced, Quimby waitressed part time to make ends meet. It was then that she met beekeeper Burt Shavitz, another urban refugee, who was living in an eight-by-eight-foot turkey-coop. In the early 1980s, Quimby started making candles from Mr. Shavitz's leftover beeswax. "We just started on the woodstove, dipping candles," says Quimby.

Her candles were a hit at local crafts shows and Christmas fairs, and Burt's Bees was born. Quimby found it hard to grow the company in remote northern Maine, so, in 1994, she moved the business to Raleigh, N.C. (she keeps tabs on things via computer and frequent trips south).

Now, having bought out Shavitz, Quimby is the sole owner, and annual company sales have reached $35 million.

Although Burt's Bees products feature only natural ingredients and recycled packaging, Quimby wasn't satisfied with being environmentally benign. She wanted to give something back to the land.

Meanwhile, interest in a Maine Woods National Park surged several years ago after a series of large Maine Woods land sales. In only 18 months, one quarter of the state's land - an area the size of Connecticut - changed hands. Environmentalists, already concerned about clearcutting and herbicide spraying, began to worry more about subdivisions and the loss of public access. When the Nature Conservancy bought 185,000 acres in the Maine Woods, Quimby donated $2 million.

But the park became her real dream. She joined Restore's board last year and is now buying up land within the bounds of the proposed park.

Quimby may be playing the property-rights trump card: Buy the land, and you can do whatever you want with it. However, she says she doesn't aspire to hold title to her land.

"Turning it over to the National Park Service would be my ultimate satisfaction."

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