"I've got a lot of experience creating economic prosperity. Now people need that, so it's a better story than, you know, 'Let's save habitat.'"
DEPENDING ON which direction you look, the taxiing strip at northern Maine’s tiny Millinocket Municipal Airport is either New England’s most blighted runway or its most picturesque. Out the left-hand window of an accelerating Cessna, I see the twin smoke-stacks of an abandoned paper mill surrounded by chain-link fences and corroding storage tanks. To the right is the cambered whaleback of Mount Katahdin breaching up from the green swells of the Maine highlands. It’s like watching establishing shots for two different documentaries: on the right, a soaring, Planet Earth–style aerial; on the left, an image from Roger & Me.
“Look down there,” says a voice in my headset. “You’ll see some clear-cuts, but mostly it’s been thinned pretty sparingly.” The voice belongs to Mark Leathers, a 53-year-old forester who manages the 74,000-acre woodland parcel spread out before us. We’re just east of Katahdin now, looking down at a seemingly untouched playground of wooded foothills and trout streams tumbling off the mountains to the west. The most dramatic of these is the East Branch of the Penobscot River. Leathers, perched in the plane’s front seat, points out a few burly-looking Class IV whitewater runs. If he and his boss, conservationist and Burt’s Bees cofounder Roxanne Quimby, have their way, this wilderness will be America’s next national park.
Suddenly, the Cessna takes a hard 45-degree tilt. “Check out the moose,” yells Leathers. Sure enough, there’s a cow wading in an oxbow pond below, head down, seemingly oblivious to the drone of our engine.
Technically, this Idaho-shaped chunk of land, which contains a 30-mile stretch of the International Appalachian Trail, is known as the East Branch Sanctuary. But around Millinocket it’s simply referred to as “Quimby’s land.” The self-made millionaire owns it, along with 119,000 acres of other timber-company lands that she started buying up back in 2000, when Burt’s Bees was raking in about $23 million a year. Her plan was to give the property to the National Park Service, thereby galvanizing other donations that would eventually establish a 3.2-million-acre wilderness in the last great undeveloped region east of the Rockies.
But the campaign stalled out of the gate. Public land is a tough sell in northern Maine, where residents are accustomed to hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, and cutting timber. Many didn’t cotton to the rhetoric of a wealthy environmentalist; others feared that the proposed park would spell the end of the region’s struggling paper mills. The fact that Quimby first partnered with a Massachusetts conservation non-profit called Restore didn’t help matters. She’d managed to align herself with the three groups viewed most skeptically in northern Maine: enviros, the federal government, and Massholes.
But a dozen years and a few hundred Ban Roxanne bumper stickers later, Quimby is back with more practical ambitions. Last spring she announced plans for a dramatically reduced 74,000-acre Maine Woods National Park just east of Katahdin, carved entirely from her own property. And thanks to better diplomacy and a new emphasis on economic benefit, Quimby is beginning to win hearts and minds. In the past two years, the region’s chamber of commerce has come on board, and snowmobile clubs, logging operations, and other former opponents have lined up to endorse a special resource study—an essential precursor to the park. Alexander Brash, northeast regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, calls the rebooted park “a realistic expectation,” pointing to polls that show solid majorities of Mainers now willing to entertain the idea.
“People in northern Maine like living in the woods,” says Quimby. “They like to fish and hunt and hike. But they don’t see conservation as an abstract concept that needs protection. That’s not important to them. What’s important is jobs.” And in the past decade, unemployment in the Katahdin region has fluctuated between eight and 28 percent.
“I’ve had a lot of experience creating economic prosperity,” she continues. “Now people in this region need that, so it’s a better story than, you know, ‘Let’s save habitat.’ ”