MILLINOCKET, Maine — Roxanne Quimby sees a national park as part of her potential legacy and hopes to make a gift of 70,000 acres for a park to the federal government in 2016.
But the millionaire co-founder of Burt’s Bees and noted environmentalist said during a meeting at Stearns High School on Monday that Maine’s two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, must be convinced that a national park enjoys the support of the people around it before they would consider supporting the proposal. Both senators expressed strong skepticism Tuesday about Quimby’s proposal.
“And the current administration [of President Obama] has made it clear that they will not expend any political capital” supporting a park or the creation of a federal monument within the proposed park area unless a park enjoys similar popular support, Quimby said.
Presidents have the authority to create monuments — and that often and most directly leads to the creation of a park — without congressional support, Quimby noted.
And what if Quimby’s self-imposed deadline, the 100-year anniversary of the start of then-Maine House of Representatives member Percival Baxter’s campaign to create Baxter State Park, isn’t met?
“We’ll keep right on going,” Quimby said, calling her efforts part of an educational process.
Quimby’s initiative calls for her giving more than 70,000 wild acres next to Baxter State Park to the federal government to create a Maine Woods National Park. The park would be nearly twice the size of Acadia National Park. Sportsmen would get another 30,000 acres north of Dover-Foxcroft to be managed like a state park, with hunting and snowmobiling allowed.
Another 10 million acres of forestland nearby would be untouched.
The Legislature has stated its opposition to her proposal and Millinocket and Medway town leaders are mulling whether to support it. A slim majority of Millinocket’s Town Council members has indicated its opposition to a park and a study of a park’s feasibility for the region, almost issuing a resolve against the park last month, but the panel hasn’t yet voted on the issue. That vote will occur on July 28.
It was clear from Quimby’s discourse Monday that a national park designation would not be a quick fix for Millinocket or the Katahdin region’s economy, which in May had an unemployment rate of 21.4 percent, almost three times the state average, according to Maine Department of Labor statistics. The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in May was 7.7 percent according to the statistics, with 9.1 percent reported nationally.
One of the towns she discussed, Seward, Alaska — near Kenai Fjords, which became a national park in 1980 – took more than 20 years to get its park visits up from 16,000 to 300,000, she said. Quimby was more optimistic that the Katahdin region, with the existing Baxter State Park, could get visitors at a faster rate.
“If 2.5 million can get to Acadia, I think we can get 500,000 to the Millinocket-Medway region. I think that would be a good, viable start,” Quimby said.
Getting Congress to move on a national parks designation “takes awhile,” Quimby said. “It doesn’t have to take awhile, but it depends on how fast the coalition [supporting a park] gets put together.”
Snowe made it clear Tuesday that she won’t be swayed by anything but the desires of state residents. She said “authorizing a federal park in Northern Maine would cause a region of the state to be governed by decisions dictated from Washington.”
“While I always welcome input from Mainers, I strongly believe that keeping Maine land-use decisions in the hands of Mainers is critically important to keeping forestry jobs in our state,” she said in a statement.
Collins said she has “serious concerns” about Quimby’s proposal.
“A national park would most likely spell the end to the working forest that has provided thousands of good jobs to the area’s families for generations,” she said in a statement. “Based on Maine’s long experience, the real opportunity for conserving and maintaining lands for outdoor recreation such as fishing, hiking, hunting, paddling and snowmobiling, is in working closely with private landowners, not in having the federal government own the land.”
Opponents to the initiative agree with Snowe and Collins and have portrayed the park service as staggered by debt and unable to care for the parks it has, with tourism jobs offering low wages.
“Roxanne has shown no willingness to date to limit her land acquisitions either here or elsewhere. There is an urgent need to protect the wood basket from preservationists who seek to take forest land out of production and disrupt the livelihoods of thousands of Maine workers,” opponents said in a handout given to most of the 200 people who attended the meeting.
Quimby said she believes that all industries can complement a national park, with a park bringing many federal resources into the region and international publicity for it as well.
She conceded that manufacturing wages top those generally offered in the tourism industry, but Quimby said she has $20 million set aside for a park endowment — and plans to raise another $20 million — for park maintenance.
Opponents said Quimby has a history of denying sportsmen access to her land, has evicted all leaseholders from the 70,000 acres and said there is no guarantee that she or the federal Department of the Interior would not expand her proposed park.
Quimby said she limits access to many of her lands due to safety concerns. Many parcels have unsafe bridges and roads, relics from logging operations of decades past, she said. The lands also suffered from a lack of comprehensive planning that she has begun to provide.
“I didn’t buy them [lands] to block them up and turn them over to the moose. These lands have to be managed. It’s not a willy-nilly situation,” Quimby said.
Opponents also questioned whether a park would prevent the attemped revitalization or operation of the region’s two shuttered paper mills, thus creating more unemployment, and said that Quimby has not yet offered a detailed plan of how the park would be accessed.
Quimby said she has no interest in any vast expansion of her park proposal, certainly nothing that would rival the multimillion-acre park proposed by an environmental group about 20 years ago. She has, however, committed to increasing the area’s motorized trails access.
Efforts to close a deal with a new mills operator are ongoing, and state officials are optimistic, a spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday. Officials have until the end of the month before mills owner Brookfield Asset Management will begin decommissioning the mills.
Matthew Polstein, a Katahdin businessman who has proposed and is slowly building a large eco-friendly resort just outside Millinocket, said he was interested in seeing a feasibility study of a park. He thinks a national park would attract businesses that would invest in the infrastructure which would arise near a park.
“Hundreds of thousands of tourists come to the Katahdin region, but they don’t brand this area in a way that would make money flow to the area,” Polstein said. “That is the basis for my enthusiasm for a study.”
Many Millinocket businessmen have individually expressed enthusiasm for Quimby’s proposal, but the the Millinocket Downtown Revitalization Committee, which hosted Monday’s meeting, hasn’t taken a position on it. MDRC favors a study of the plan.
Some members have suggested splitting the study’s costs with opponents to help ensure its impartiality.
Collins and Snowe have opposed a feasibility study, Quimby said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-East Millinocket, is undecided on a park or study, but has expressed a willingness to hear more of Quimby’s proposal. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-North Haven, favors a study, her spokesman said.
Quimby has established a website for her land preservation and national park efforts, keepmebeautiful.org, which includes a copy of the presentation she made Monday. Quimby said she is interested in working with Katahdin region businesses.
“My highest, best contribution would be working with small-business people,” she said. “That would be a contribution I think I could make with a lot of joy. … I would love to get involved with helping small businesses in the area.”
Quimby’s largest investment in northern Maine, one of her advisers said after the meeting, remains the land she has bought.