It took more than three decades to establish Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Philanthropist Roxanne Quimby is hoping it won't take her quite as long.
"I think that a park in Northern Maine would be all about hiking and camping and fishing," said Quimby.
In fact, the woman who made a fortune on her "Burt's Bees" line of natural personal care products wants to hand over 70,000 acres of her own land to the National Park Service five years from now. But Quimby's dream is not universally shared by the residents of Maine's North Woods.
"National Parks do not stand for access, they won't let you hunt, they won't let you trap, they will not let you fly over their parks," said Ray Campbell of the Fin and Feather Club. He lives in Millinocket.
"We'd like to be part of this process and we feel that you have left us out and we'd like to be included," said state senator Doug Thomas (R-Ripley). The lands surrounding the proposed national park sits squarely within his district.
Park Place looks more closely at what Roxanne Quimby has in mind, at the reasons behind the strong resistance and at how the woman who some still see as a "radical environmentalist" has been able to make converts of some of her most vocal critics.
The town of Millinocket is known as the Magic City because it was carved out of the woods almost over night. For more than a hundred years, Millinocket and East Millinocket, affectionately known as "the town that paper made" hummed with the sounds of two paper mills that employed generations of residents and made the communities among the wealthiest in Maine. Over the past decade the mills have been stopped and re-started as their owners changed hands. Lately both have been idled. The unemployment rate stands at more than 20 percent. But this week, a collective sigh of relief. A new buyer, New Hampshire-based Cate Street Capital has inked a deal to buy both mills. Several hundred residents are hoping to go back to work. And many are not prepared to give up on the paper industry or the long tradition of keeping tens of thousands of acres of Maine's North Woods as working forest.
Jimmy Busque recently lost his job when the second of the two mills closed.
"It's our heritage," said Busque. "We're outdoors people. We're millworkers. We're trades people and that's what we are and I'm not ashamed of our past. And I want to continue looking forward to the future in that same way."
Eugene Conlogue is the town manager of Millinocket, which has a population of about 5,000 residents. He's also a longtime park opponent.
"We have people who are getting a little bit spooked and panicked okay?" said Conlogue. "The national park, it's a great concept, great idea, but for the most part it's going to create part-time, seasonal, no-benefit, low-pay jobs."
And Conlogue worries that the forest products industry will be so put off by a national park that they'll be unwilling to make investments in the region and that the region's wood supply could be affected.
"This is not going to be the salvation of this area" Conlogue said. "I go back to the forest products industry. That is the lifeblood of the Millinocket region of this part of the state of Maine and any interference in that industry we should look at very, very hard and carefully before we trade what we have for what they try to promise us."
"And let me stress that we're not against tourism," Busque said. "We never said that."
Former millworker Jimmy Busque is also a member of the town council, which twice voted to oppose a Maine woods national park.
"We believe what we have now is working," said Busque. "We're sitting next to over two million acres of land that can certainly support a forest industry and with a national park, of course, you can't - there's no wood harvesting in national parks. You can't log national parks, so we're very concerned with that."
Susan Sharon: "You don't think that a mill and a park can co-exist?"
Jimmy Busque: "Nope."
But even some who make their living in the woods think fears about the possible effects of a 70,000-acre national park on Maine's forest products industry are exaggerated.
Rudy Pelletier and his brothers run a logging company, as well as a popular restaurant in town.
"I think it probably shocked a lot of people, because myself being a logger, you know?" Pelletier said while visiting a work site about an hour from Millinocket. "They probably think I'd be opposed to what Roxanne is doing. But you know what do we got to lose?"
The Pelletier family starred in the Discovery Channel's reality TV show American Loggers. Rudy Pelletier said he doesn't understand the concerns about Roxanne Quimby's plan to turn her timberlands into a park when she's already taken them out of timber production.
"There's so many areas we have to go logging and the area that she's looking at I've got no interest in doing any logging out there," said Pelletier. "Millinocket needs this. You know there's really nothing else going on. I really think a national park will bring people in the area and you know, she's not being selfish."
According to a Michigan State University study prepared for the National Park Service, visits to national parks are on the rise. There were more than 285 million visits in 2009 alone. That's an increase from the year before in spite of the nation's economic downturn. And those visitors spent nearly $12 billion in local gateway communities within 60 miles of a national park. At Maine's only national park, Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, there were more than two million visitors in 2009. And the park, at 35,000 acres in size, is directly responsible for 3,100 local jobs. Around Millinocket, as residents wait to see what happens with the mills, some are starting to push for a park feasibility study, something that's required before a national park can be formally considered by Congress.
"The discussion that we've had was let's get the information and find out if this is gonna be something that we should be supportive of or not," said Chip Lamson. He is president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce.
"And there's some good potential to draw in a lot more people," said Lamson. "More visitors mean a lot more opportunities for people to sell their services or sell their wares and that's what we all need."
Susan Sharon: "Is it fair to say that your members seem to be more supportive of the idea in general now than they were before?"
Chip Lamson: "Absolutely. Like I've said we've never had much feedback from members saying 'No we don't want to talk about a park or hear about a park until it's come up all around town.' They just want some answers."
For nearly 20 years most of the discussion around a Maine Woods National Park has focused on a vastly larger 3.2 million-acre proposal backed by the group RESTORE: The North Woods. For many, that is just too much of a threat to the wood supply of northern Maine. And critics also cite a possible onslaught of regulations from the federal government. But Roxanne Quimby's proposal for a 70,000-acre park on land she already owns is making converts of some former park opponents.
Matthew Polstein and his family run the outdoor recreation company New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket.
"We provide high adventure activities like whitewater rafting and snowmobiling. We also have passive adventures like watchable wildlife: moose tours, cross country skiing, snowshoeing," Polstein said.
Polstein said he opposes a 3.2 million acre national park. But at 70,000 acres, he believes a park could be compatible with the traditional way of life and provide new opportunities for the region. He now supports a park feasibility study.
"We are a beleaguered economy," Polstein said. "We're losing services in town. The quality of our education system is in decline and can only continue to decline unless we have something dramatic happen in a positive fashion to change that. So, people are ready to explore alternatives that a year ago or five years ago they would never have considered."
It's 7:30 am and Matt Polstein has taken Roxanne Quimby on a tour of Millinocket Lake where a large moose is quietly munching pondweed.
Matt Polstein: "If you look beyond the shoreline there's a tall pine tree and he's this side of that standing sideways to us."
Roxanne Quimby: "Oh!"
In the background is Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, to the west, conservation easement lands and to the east Quimby's own holdings, the place she envisions for a national park.
"So when you look across this lake you're looking at 200,000-plus acres of Baxter State Park," said Polstein. "You're looking at the West Branch lands which are subject to no development, sustainable forestry public access easements. You're sitting at the practical demarkation zone for development. It can happen going this way. It can't happen going that way."
"Wow," said Quimby. "So this view will always be here?"
"Basically," Polstein said.
"That's great," Quimby said.
For her part, Roxanne Quimby said she loves national parks and visits them often. As the co-founder of the Burts Bees personal care products empire, Quimby made a fortune when she sold the business. She has used her wealth ever since to buy and conserve land in northern Maine.
"I was fortunate enough to have business success," Quimby said. "I am not interested in spoiling my children by handing the resources that we have acquired to them and instead I would like to have a resource that is available to all Americans, my children and all children to enjoy for the future. I think that as you age and I'm in my 60s now, you start thinking about Well, what did I do while I was here? How are people going to remember me when I'm not here? And I think that this is my way of creating a legacy and convincing myself that it was important that I got to live on this earth for as long as I have been able to."
Quimby initially backed the proposal by RESTORE to create a 3.2 million-acre national park. And when she started buying up timberland herself and closed most of it off to snowmobiles, ATVs and even hunters she was vilified by residents of northern Maine as "a radical environmentalist," someone who would shut down Maine's forest products industry and hand over control of the woods to the federal government. Bumper stickers and t-shirts appeared with the slogan: "Ban Roxanne."
"Without a doubt I was Roxanne's strongest critic when this all started," said George Smith. "I mean you're talking to a guy that had a "Ban Roxanne" bumper sticker on his vehicle for a long, long time."
Smith was the longtime executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine or SAM. After five years of meetings, Smith now supports a park feasibility study, mostly because Quimby has distanced herself from RESTORE's idea and is now proposing a 70,000-acre national park on land she owns along with a sizable endowment to keep it maintained.
"I think that a park in northern Maine would be a park that would be all about hiking and camping and fishing and in the winter, of course, visitation would probably be less but it would be a park about winter camping and winter hiking and cross country skiing," said Quimby.
As a hard-fought compromise with park opponents, Quimby is also proposing to buy an additional 30,000 acres, turn it over to the state of Maine and allow for hunting and snowmobiling.
"I still believe that a 3.2 million-acre park is a fabulous idea. I'd like to see a ten million-acre national park!" Quimby said. "I love national parks and the bigger the better! But in terms of what I can accomplish as an individual I think that there are limitations. And because private property rights and my rights as a landowner figure so importantly into this discussion, I feel best about limiting the conversation to land that I own so that's why I'm talking about 70,000 acres and not 3.2 million but theoretically the sky's the limit!"
Comments like these fuel the fears of some park opponents that the 70,000 acres will be the beginning of something much larger. Something that could piece together Baxter State Park and tens of thousands of acres in conservation easement lands nearby.
Here's what a family, who attended an informational session on the the park in July had to say about the new proposal: (the family declined to give MPBN their names.)
Woman #1: "We live in Elliotsville. We got two hours to get back. We don't want to hit a moose on the way home, but we came purposely to hear what she has to say. We've been following it. We do not trust her. We are opposed to a full, North Woods National Park and we think that this is just he beginning."
Woman #2: "That's what I thought. She scares us."
Susan Sharon: "So even all the economic arguments that she presented tonight, you weren't persuaded?"
Man: "Not at all. Not even close. No.">
"National parks do not stand for access," said Ray Campbell, vice president of the Fin and Feather Club. "They will not let you hunt or fish 'cause you can't. There's no access. They will not let you trap. They will not let you fly over their parks."
Campbell is among those who do not see the national park as a way to preserve public access to Maine's North Woods, woods that have traditionally been kept open to all kinds of public access even though they were privately owned by paper companies and other large landowners. Campbell points to Acadia National Park as an example of what should be avoided.
"I've been in Acadia, yeah," said Campbell. "I'm not impressed with it, no. There's too many restrictions. There's too many people. I mean it's all commercial. Isn't it? I mean up here we do have remoteness. Down there there's nothing that's remote. It's like a circus."
Wearing a t-shirt that says: "Keep Maine Free....No National Park for ME," Campbell says his organization has been fighting the park proposal in Maine longer than anybody else, mostly because they believe that a Colonial-era law gives them guaranteed access to all the great ponds in Maine. For Campbell, it's personal.
"You're talking about taking way fur, fowl, fish, game and every last drop of water on that land," Campbell said. "It belongs to us, not to her! Are we going to allow her to give away that which is ours and that which belongs to future generations?"
Susan Sharon: "Are you at all swayed by the fact that the national park has come down dramatically in size from 3.2 million acres to 70,000?"
Ray Campbell: "That's just the beginning. 70,000 is that little chunk that's gonna be like cancer and grow and grow and grow. That's all."
"You know that conspiracy theory or that theory that this is going to grow into the 3.2 million acres, you know I think that's been disputed you know that that's not the way this works and that's not the intention. It's 70,000 acres," said Anita Mueller.
She is the co-owner of the Mooseprints Gallery in Millinocket and a member of the Downtown Revitalization Committee. She says that contrary to some locally-held notions, any expansion of a national park must be approved by Congress and the process can take years.
"If somebody wants to fight that fight down the road for more acreage that's not what Roxanne's intention was at this point and I take her at her word on that," Mueller said.
The Downtown Revitalization Committee takes the view that a feasibility study is the best way to find out whether a national park is suited to the area. Mueller said she believes some opponents may just not be able to grasp the idea that a major landowner would want to give away her land along with a sizable endowment to manage it.
"And that may be part of this is that people are somewhat in shock and don't understand it," said Mueller. "You know, maybe that's what's really foreign about this is it's such a diversion from the norm that somebody is actually willing to give me something. There was this cute little girl over at the Medway High School last week and I don't know her name and I didn't meet her but she said, 'You know, I can't believe somebody is willing to give us this.' And I think that says it all."
But for some it's about change.
Maureen Bacon and her husband own the North Woods Trading Post on the shores of Millinocket Lake. "We've been here for over 31 years. Some things stay the same. Some things don't change. That's one of the great advantages of the paper company, having leased land by them that there's no condo development or anything. It just remains the same," Bacon said.
Susan Sharon: "How many people come through here in a day?"
Maureen Bacon: "I can average over 300."
Susan Sharon: "And you sell everything from hats with mosquito netting to pizza to fishing lures, calendars, books?"
Maureen Bacon: "Gasoline, ice, souvenirs."
Susan Sharon: "And your most popular item?"
Maureen Bacon: "T-shirts."
The North Woods Trading Post is the last stop on the way to Baxter State Park, about eight miles away. Baxter is 200,000 acres of wilderness with a few narrow, unpaved access roads, rustic facilities and no electricity. Maureen Bacon said once they leave the store hikers even have a hard time using their cell phones.
"Most of the cell phones don't work up here because there are no towers to transmit them so once they go further north there's just no towers, no cell phones," said Bacon. "Then they have to come in and buy a phone card."
Despite their familiarity with the restrictions in Baxter State Park, limits on timber harvesting hunting and snowmobiling, even camping and parking, Maureen Bacon and her husband, Irwin, are skeptical of the national park idea. They question whether the National Park Service will be able to afford to maintain it. And they question why it's needed when Baxter already offers similar opportunities.
"Baxter is an experience," said Irwin Bacon. "Nobody always agrees with everything that the Park Authority does but it's their business, you know? And Governor Baxter left them with his epistles which are being kept so I think most people are happy with Baxter Park."
Baxter attracts about 70,000 visitors a year. As the official end of the Appalachian Trail there are hikers who come from out of state. But plenty of Maine residents make the regular pilgrimage to Mt. Katahdin too.
Gary and Nancy Zane of Unity and their son, Mattie, have been going camping and hiking in Baxter every summer for 22 years. It's a family tradition. On the last day of their five-day trip they treat themselves to a hearty breakfast at the Appalachian Trail Cafe in Millinocket. They said they support the idea of a national park.
"Baxter State Park is probably the nicest hiking wilderness region in all of New England, possibly the east coast," Gary Zane said. "As a state park they do a fabulous job of keeping it following Percival Baxter's creed of keeping it wild forever. Along the eastern coast there's less and less areas like this so any land that can be preserved or saved through conservation, I think, is a good thing."
Park supporters are convinced a national park, even at less than half Baxter's size will provide the kind of branding and marketing to put the entire region on the radar of every outdoor enthusiast in the country. This, after all, is the forest made famous by author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau who paddled the Penobscot River and climbed Mt. Katahdin where he looked out over the landscape of rivers, lakes and ponds and described it "as a mirror broken into a thousand fragments, and wildly scattered over the grass, reflecting the full blaze of the sun."
"It's not the Grand Canyon, you know," said George Smith, the former head of SAM. "It's not Yellowstone or some of these magnificent national parks."
As a writer and sportsman George Smith has recently spent time on the East Branch of the Penobscot River, paddling and fishing on Roxanne Quimby's lands through a writer in residence program she offers. He says he was pleasantly surprised at what he found.
"It does have some unique attributes," Smith said. "One of them is that it's a boreal forest which attracts different critters especially birds and there is no boreal forest in the National Park System that I know about, certainly not in the northeast, so it is a unique habitat. And I think you'd have to look at it in the context of everything around there: the West Branch, Katahdin, the East Branch, the northern forest. You're sort of introducing people in a small way to a much bigger concept of a ten million-acre, largely undeveloped, with all these wonderful features, forest and rivers and you're seeing a little piece of that."
No matter what the scenic qualities of the area there is also mistrust of the federal government by some local residents. State Senator Doug Thomas (R-Ripley) made that clear when he challenged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar during a recent meeting Salazar hosted in Millinocket about the process for approving a national park, something that would be under his agency's jurisdiction.
"We'd like to be part of this process and we feel that you have left us out and that we not going to be included," Thomas said during the meeting. "And we're curious who you consulted with before you came and who invited you."
"Well, Senator, let me just say that I invited myself," responded Salazar. "Nobody invited me. Okay?"
Salazar said he doesn't have a position on a proposed national park for Maine. But it's clear he does see value in the concept in general. As Colorado's attorney general he was part of an effort to create the Great Sand Dunes National Park in a low-income, rural valley about 250 miles south of Denver.
"It was not a foregone conclusion that that's what would happen but we had the local community involved with us," Salazar said. "The ranchers in the area and the farmers decided that was the best way to go because that was the way they could sustain their agricultural economy and their way of life."
Ten years later, Salazar said there are about 350,000 visitors a year to the park and it has become a powerful engine in the local economy. But at what cost? That's one question on the mind of Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue who keeps a letter he got from the National Park Service and another federal agency in Colorado about a decade ago. He said they were objecting to Great Northern Paper Company's plans to amend an air quality license for the Millinocket mill.
"Their objection was that Millinocket was in the 150 kilometer, Class A protected zone around Acadia National Park and the Moosehorn National Wildlife Reserve," said Conlogue. "Come to find out it was not within the 150-kilometer radius of Acadia or Moosehorn."
But by the time everything got straightened out, Conlogue says it was too late. Great Northern was in the middle of negotiating a refinancing plan for a machine upgrade. That deal fell through. Conlogue said he and others believe the government's intervention was a factor. About a year later, Great Northern sold off its hydro electric system to pay for the upgrade. And a few years later both the mills were sold. Life has never been quite the same in Millinocket.
"There's not going to be a Great Northern Paper Company again," said Charlie Pray. "We're not gonna go back to where we were 40 years ago."
Charlie Pray is a former state senator and sporting camp owner from Millinocket.
"They used to own 2.1 to 2.3 million acres of land," Pray said. "Today they own around 300,000 acres of land. What's it going to be like 100 years from now here in Maine? Is there going to be any land left if we don't set some of it aside? If it just keeps getting subdivided?"
This year the Maine Legislature passed a resolve opposing a park feasibility study. And only one of the four members of Maine's congressional delegation, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D), has given her endorsement. But Roxanne Quimby said she isn't discouraged. A local committee has recent been formed to build support for a park study. She's gotten the support from the local chamber and a local school board and she counts that as progress.
"I think that I am starting to sense a shift in attitude with people who probably ten years ago would have demonized me or demonized the beliefs that I had about conservation and recreation in the area but they're sitting at the table with me now and talking about how can we make this work for everybody," Quimby said.
In the event that she cannot fulfill her dream for a national park, Quimby said she is willing to consider a national monument, a protected area that can be declared by the President and does not require Congressional approval.
"A monument is a plan B," said Quimby. "It might be a little bit easier to do but the gold standard is a national park where that democratic process is exercised and I would like to see that this is a result of the will of the people and not something that our top official can sign into existence."
It took Quimby 20 years to build Burt's Bees into a multi-million dollar company after starting with just a roadside stand in Maine. Creating a national park, she said, will take patience but she's willing to wait.