Media Archive

Quimby adds to buzz about future of Maine forest

Article from The Piscataquis Observer, Vol. 165, No. 50, December 10, 2003

By Ben Bragdon
Staff Writer

BREWER It was nearing 7:30 p.m. and, with dinner over, the crowd at the Forest Resources Association meeting waited anxiously to hear the words of a woman whose activism and deep pockets have often caused alarm within their tight knit and tradition-ladened industry.

Though a podium sat on the stage at the front of the catering hall, Roxanne Quimby, fresh off her purchase
of over 24,000 acres just north of Baxter State Park, chose to stand in the middle of the room's many tables and address the audience using a remote microphone, emerging herself in a crowd that, while largely civil and open, did have some elements who despise the work and ideas of the controversial environmentalist and cosmetics magnate.

Quimby now owns over 40,000 acres of the Maine North Woods in northern Piscataquis and Penobscot counties, land that she hopes one day will become part of a proposed 3.2 million acre national park. Opponents of the plan say a park in northern Maine would cripple the woods products industry there and destroy the many recreation activities that are critical parts of both the economy and everyday life.

The Burfs Bees co-founder addressed those criticisms soon after she took the floor Dec. 4, saying that, though she backed the national park initiative, she was merely one vote in the democratic process that would decide the future of the Maine woods.

This was a refrain she would revert to many times during the evening, hoping to dispel what she saw as a myth that pins her as uncomprising as she moves toward her goal of a federal park in northern Maine. She has become "a symbol that people have projected their fear of change on" as the debate over how to best protect our natural resources while ensuring the future of Maine's traditional industries has fractured and polarized the various business and environmental groups involved in the discussion.

Quimby said she simply believes that a national park would best solve the difficulties presented by the convergence of conservation, recreation and economy in a region that is undergoing changes in industry and population. She said she also welcomes the public debate that she hopes takes place over the proposed national park. Only after input is given from all parties can the state move forward together, she said.

"We as a group have to work together to find our common ground," said Quimby.

Her opening speech, an off-the-cuff affair that included the remarkable story of her rise from wandering hippie to small business owner to all-natural cosmetics queen served to put her views in perspective.

A self-proclaimed "child of the '60s", Quimby found her calling while building Burt's Bees from its start in a humble storefront in Guilford. A natural at marketing and packaging her products, she saw the business grow until she felt it could go no farther in Maine and, in what she called her most difficult decision ever, Quimby moved Burt's Bees from her adopted home state to North Carolina, where its profits have reached $50 million a year.

Quimby became involved with RESTORE, the group that formulated the Maine Woods National Park proposal, and began to buy up land in northern Maine in 2000. The purchases serve to keep the land out of the hands of developers, Quimby said, with the hope that the acreage will eventually become part of a park.

Following her speech and a national park-themed pop quiz that a few in the crowd saw as too flippant given the issue's connection to their livelihoods Quimby took written questions from the audience.

It was during this session that Quimby showed a surprising lack of knowledge of the inner details of the national park debate, a fact she owned up to when asked the difference between a National Park and National Forest designations important to those in attendance since they hold keys to critical issues like access and usage.

Quimby, equal parts flower child and instinctual businesswoman, said she merely has a vision for the Maine woods, and is by no means an expert. She said all sides of the debate should be considered.

Her support for the national park comes in large part, she said, from her experiences at places like Acadia National Park and the Grand Canyon. Summoning her bottom line side, she said that a national park designation gives the land a recognizable "name brand" that would help sell the area as a tourist destination to people all over the planet. The region faces a changing economy, she said, and she believes the park can help northern Maine cope with this monumental shift.

Quimby said the questions regarding land use and its relationship to the economy and conservation have already been answered through the national park process, so it makes sense to her to put the future of Maine's lands in the hands of the people who have the expertise to guide it correctly, though given her lack of understanding of some of the nuances of the issue, that statement certainly rings hollow in some of the hardened ears in northern Maine.

Many of the questions asked of Quimby involved the loss of recreational and economic opportunities that either have happened as the result of her purchases, or that would happen as a result of the formation of a national park.

She offered candid answers to the former, but solid answers to the latter often seem stuck in the emotional arguments at the forefront of this debate.

While rumors have circled regarding how Quimby's lack of enthusiasm for activities like hunting and snowmobiling would affect the future of those activities on her land, she said Thursday that she was a "practical person" who was open to a "balance of uses".

When asked by one audience member if she had closed her land to snowmobiles or ATVs, Quimby responded that she had not posted anything on her land, and did not think that she could stop motorized vehicles if she wanted to.

"Could I stop you?" she said

Quimby said she has sold her majority share in Burt's Bees and,though she will continute to lead the company while they find a successor, the change should allow her to devote more time to her cause. She said she is currently in the process of hiring people to staff an office in Maine for the purpose of pursuing the national park initiative.

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.