When Roxanne Quimby started buying large parcels of land in the Katahdin area in the early 2000s, the idea was to establish a 3.2 million-acre national park. A self-made millionaire from her natural-skin care line Burt’s Bees, Quimby wanted the wilderness to be preserved in perpetuity. Indeed, the land is some of the most wild remaining east of the Rockies.
The opposition to the plan would have made one think she wanted to divide the land near Baxter State Park into subdivisions. Residents blasted her proposal, saying they wanted to retain access to the lands to hunt, fish and snowmobile. They spoke of their ideological opposition to federally owned property. Some proffered that a park would harm the papermaking industry. Camp owners who leased Quimby’s land were upset when she terminated their leases.
Over time, Quimby made modifications. Instead of a 3.2-million-acre park, the proposal is now for about 75,000 acres. Her son, Lucas St. Clair, a sportsman, became the spokesman for the effort. St. Clair, who is the president of the board of Elliotsville Plantation Inc., the company that oversees Quimby’s lands in Maine, is careful to keep his messages focused on the need for collaboration and local support. He has a ground game — meeting with opponents, knocking on doors, and talking to hikers and fishermen in the forest.
He has emphasized a topic many people in the Katahdin region are worried about — the economy — and requested data. The independent research group Headwaters Economics performed studies released last winter that found a park and recreation area in the Katahdin region could create between 450 and 1,000 jobs.
St. Clair has also talked frequently about not just developing a national park but what’s called a recreation area, where hunting and snowmobiling may be allowed. So no one should be surprised by last week’s announcement that EPI is opening 40,000 acres to hunting and other “traditional” activities and will open an additional 60,000 acres to low-impact recreational pursuits. EPI has also opened an 18-mile loop road, and a snowmobile trail is being built.
The announcement is the latest development in a long road toward a possible national park, and it’s a smart public relations move. But if people had been listening, they would know hunting has been part of the long-term plan for a while. In relation to the 3.5 million acres of the North Woods, opening up the land is a small change. But for those whose livelihoods depend on tourism and hunting in that area, it’s a restoration of something they had lost.
The irony of course is that the land is privately owned, and Maine residents have historically respected landowners’ rights. But Congress won’t approve a national park without local support.
In that way, then, opening up the land will only help EPI’s mission. The idea is that parcels east of the East Branch of the Penobscot River would become part of the recreation area, while the west side of the river, which abuts Baxter, would become a national park, where fishing would be allowed but not hunting. St. Clair is essentially demonstrating his ideal model: that a protected space and active use of the land can co-exist. By giving residents a preview, in the event a national park and recreation area are formed, he might be able to convince local residents that the change won’t be as great as they think. Maybe.
Residents, meanwhile, should decide for themselves what they want for the future of their region. If they don’t want a national park and recreation area, they should be clear about what else they’d prefer. The choice, as we’ve said before, cannot be between the park, which could create hundreds of long-term jobs, and some hoped-for but as yet unplanned vision of a new economy.