In an online interview published this week, environmentalist Roxanne Quimby called Maine “a welfare state” that has a large population of obese and elderly people and whose major landowners are committed to a forest products industry model that hasn’t worked in years.
Describing forest products landowners as “a very tight-knit group of industry people who own, manage and call the shots over ten million acres of land,” Quimby said they have aggressively harvested trees over the last 100 years “to the point where the mills in the area have been unable to stay competitive.”
“A hundred years later, there isn’t enough to make a living. They’ve all fragmented … sold off rights and easements … just to stay alive,” Quimby said in the question-and-answer-formatted interview, full of ellipses, which appeared on forbes.com, the website of the biweekly financial magazine Forbes. “But they still have not accepted that the old paradigm isn’t working. They’re in complete denial.”
“We have the most aged population in the country. … I believe we have one of the highest adult obesity rates in New England. We have … oxycontin abuse,” Quimby added. “Maine’s the largest net receiver of Federal funds, even though we supposedly hate the Feds … it’s a welfare state.”
Local leaders and forest products industry representatives described Quimby’s view of Mainers and the industry’s health as inaccurate, outdated and demeaning to the people whose support she needs if her plan to give 70,000 acres to the federal government for a national park is to succeed.
“The way this article portrays her is as someone who holds the people of this area in total disregard. She makes the people subservient to her goals of establishing her legacy with the national park and at the expense of the majority of the people in this region,” said Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue, who opposes Quimby’s national park initiative. “I am very sorry to see her say some of the things she has said.”
Attempts to reach Quimby were unsuccessful on Friday.
In the interview, Quimby spoke of the need to allow nature its place and to preserve the fragile East Branch of the Penobscot River. She also discussed her admiration of writer Henry David Thoreau and the beauty of the Katahdin region. But she described Katahdin region residents as “tone-deaf when it comes to the environment. But what is very urgent and pressing there is the economy.”
The state’s unemployment rate was 7.6 percent in August, with the national rate at 9.1 percent, U.S. Department of Labor statistics show. In the Katahdin region, which is the closest population center to her land, the unemployment rate has been 21 percent since its last paper mill closed in April.
Exactly how much Maine is a “welfare state” is difficult to quantify, but according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce for the 2009-10 fiscal year, Maine ranked 12th in per-capita federal aid to state and local governments.
To see the U.S. Census report on federal aid to states for fiscal year 2010, click here.
The region’s unemployment rate should drop significantly when the East Millinocket mill’s new owner resumes production later this month. Cate Street Capital also plans to restart another mill in Millinocket in several months.
The new mill ownership shows that though its paper and forest products industries have contracted significantly over the last two decades, Maine’s forest products industry is far from dead, members say.
“What Maine has is a well-managed, integrated forest and forest products complex better than any Northeastern state’s,” said Keith Van Scotter, co-owner of Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC. “It is an efficient industry. We can go in and maximize the use of the forest. Logging is managed very, very well in the state today and is very highly regulated from an environmental perspective.”
The forest products industry is facing a “tremendous increase” in the demand for wood, so much so that state leaders are worried about a shortage of loggers. The present employment base is just barely meeting demand, said John Metrick, director of communications for the Maine Forest Products Council, which opposes her plan.
“It has become incredibly sensitive to the environment and that is something that is constantly progressing,” Metrick said. “It is really easy to make claims about logging and tearing down forests, but less than 3 percent of forests are clear-cut these days. Compare that to lands and how they were managed 100 years ago.”
Quimby also described how the region’s poor economy is affecting its schools.
“They’re having trouble keeping their schools open. Their grammar school is in the wing of the high school,” Quimby continued, in an apparent description of East Millinocket, whose leaders have taken no position on the park plan.
“They’re trying to recruit Chinese students to pay tuition and move there,” Quimby said, referring to Millinocket school leaders. “They worked their budget around thirty Chinese student recruits coming in and paying $35,000 a year to their high school. They got seven. It’s a total economic disaster.”
Millinocket school leaders originally hoped to have 60 Chinese students paying $24,000 tuition and as of Friday had three, said Arnold Hopkins, chairman of the Millinocket School Committee. Recruiting efforts continue.
“Ms. Quimby has been given the wrong information,” Hopkins said. “It is not a disaster. We anticipated that this thing [the China program] is an iffy proposition and we worked around it.”
“If Ms. Quimby wants to come and talk to us and get the true facts, we would be glad to talk to her,” he added.
Quimby described how a national park would be a boon for the northern Penobscot County economy and spoke proudly of her time as a co-founder of Burt’s Bees.
“It would provide enormous economic diversity and opportunity that doesn’t exist now,” Quimby said of a park. “Prosperity begins with small business, with committed, passionate people and communities and families that care about each other. And that’s still intact up there. It’s pretty amazing. … I’ve organized rural America … before, in Guilford, where I started Burt’s Bees, and I had up to about forty-five women and we got the business up to about $3 million in sales. It was like a sheer miracle.”
Quimby’s business success is indisputable, but the political acumen of disparaging the people she is trying to persuade to accept her park plan — and the intelligence of giving so much land to the federal government ― is questionable, Van Scotter said.
“She is trying to make her point by running the people down? It doesn’t make sense,” said Van Scotter, who has taken no position on Quimby’s park proposal. “I think our government representatives don’t like how she has approached things. I think she is not doing it [running the national park campaign] well. I am concerned about long-term access to raw materials and what letting the federal government in would do.
“The federal government hasn’t done the industry any favors, that’s for sure,” he added.