Park Debate Is a Battle Over the Future of Maine

Efforts to Preserve Wilderness and Flurry of Land Sales Fuel Uncertainty

Sunday, November 28, 2004

TOWNSHIP 5, RANGE 8, Maine -- Here in the shadow of Mount Katahdin, near the finish line of the Appalachian Trail, elephant-size moose share stands of spruce with sportsmen on snowmobiles. Sparsely populated swaths of land are known by their numbers, not names. And Ken Conatser, who runs a commercial hunting lodge, sees a Maine that used to live up to its slogan: "The way life should be."

Others, such as multimillionaire cosmetics maven Roxanne Quimby, who became Conatser's landlady last November when she bought more than 24,000 acres of what locals call T5 R8, see something far more unsettling: an unspoiled wilderness with an uncertain future.

Infuriating her neighbors, Quimby has banned hunting and plans to end snowmobiling on what she calls her "sanctuary." And her long-term goal is about as palatable to some rural Mainers as tofu with their venison: a 3.2 million-acre national park that would be larger than Yosemite and Yellowstone combined, and where hunting, snowmobiling and logging would be heavily restricted.

"This land is a treasure made by something larger than ourselves, but there are no guarantees right now that things will look like this up here forever," she said. "It's too important to the world to be left to chance."

Northern Maine, one of the last western-scale vestiges of backcountry east of the Rocky Mountains, is in the midst of its greatest land grab since the arrival of the paper tycoons who ruled the woods here for more than a century. Almost 7 million acres -- a quarter of this largest New England state -- has changed hands in the past six years, as environmentalists, sportsmen and a host of private investors wrestle over parcels sold off by timber companies that have fallen on hard times.

The state's large and influential hunting and snowmobiling communities are fighting attempts to curtail their access to some private land. Advocates of the troubled paper industry are seeking to secure continued access to the woods to harvest trees. And with more than 94 percent of the land in the state owned privately, conservationists have expressed concern about some of the new buyers' commitment to preservation.

The largest sale yet was announced Nov. 10, when a Connecticut-based investment firm said it had bought 1.1 million acres in Maine and New Hampshire from International Paper Co.

"For generations, the paper companies sort of managed everything for us up here," said Patrick K. McGowan, commissioner of Maine's Department of Conservation. "They gave sportsmen pretty much free rein, and in turn the people up here helped out as stewards of the land. But with all of these new buyers, nobody knows quite what will happen now, and people are getting nervous."

Against this backdrop of free-wheeling land sales is the ambitious plan pushed by Quimby and backers of a Concord, Mass.-based group called Restore: The North Woods, which in 1994 first proposed the gigantic park to be made up of land either donated or bought by the government from willing sellers. The group has collected more than 100,000 signatures and is lobbying the state's congressional delegation to submit legislation for a feasibility study, the first formal step in the process of creating a new park.

While the park plan has fared well in a series of public opinion polls conducted in recent years, Maine's most prominent elected officials oppose it. Gov. John E. Baldacci (D) has referred to it as a "non-starter" and has put forth his own plan called the Maine Woods Legacy, which seeks to balance conservation and more traditional land uses.

But park proponents say that concerns over the volume of land transactions has given them a new opening.

"We are starting to see some momentum," said Jym St. Pierre, who runs the group's Maine office. "We have gotten assurances that Congress will consider launching a study sometime next year."

The Maine woods are in some ways an ideal locale for a national park, wilderness experts say, encompassing habitat suitable for species as diverse as wolves and Atlantic salmon. The area under consideration -- an oval patch across the northern tier of the state that is part of a vast forest stretching west to New York's Adirondack Mountains and north into Canada -- is virtually unpopulated, with moose outnumbering people.

Land can be bought for as little as $200 an acre, and the Restore group has estimated the amount required to purchase the necessary land at $500 million to $900 million. The park would be an easy drive up Interstate 95 from a major population center, Boston, and would be served by the international airport in Bangor, Maine.

"Areas under consideration to become parks need to meet some standard for ecological, cultural or recreational significance, and this would seem to make the grade," said Robert E. Manning, a professor at the University of Vermont's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, who has worked on several national park projects.

"In most parks, hunting and motorized sports are banned, but some of the newer ones are more amenable to mixed uses," Manning said. "This might be a good candidate for something like that."

But detractors say that as a potential tourist attraction, the Maine woods have plenty of drawbacks. They lack a high-profile land feature, such as Yosemite's picturesque Half Dome mountain or Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser. And the vast forest contains only a few stray stands of old-growth trees, which environmentalists deem most important to protect.

Many Mainers also mock the proposed park's stable of celebrity backers -- such as actors Harrison Ford, Jeff Bridges and Morgan Freeman.

"Answer me this: What right do these people have to make a decision that concerns us?" said Conatser, a retired Marine whose rustic Bowlin Camps has been in operation on its current site since 1895. "You couldn't find five people up here who think it's a good idea. It would ruin what makes Maine special. It would ruin us."

But Quimby, 54, a self-described flower child who founded the natural cosmetics company Burt's Bees in Maine in the 1980s and has bought up more than 50,000 acres of woodlands in the state, is undeterred by such arguments.

Many of this country's 58 national parks were established with the help of wealthy individuals, some of whom were vilified by locals opposed to the projects. John D. Rockefeller, who donated much of what became Montana's Grand Teton National Park, was pilloried as out of touch with rural needs and sensibilities.

Here, Quimby has emerged as a lightning rod for criticism. As a resident of Guilford, Maine, in the 1980s, she collaborated with Burt Shavitz, a local beekeeper, on products including beeswax lip balm. She moved the company headquarters to North Carolina in 1993 and recently sold 80 percent of the firm for a reported $180 million.

Since she began investing in land, she said, she has received threatening phone calls and e-mails that led her to live outside the state for much of the year.

"I think there's enough land here for all of us to use the way we want to. I never expected such controversy, but at this point I have $20 million at stake in this argument," said Quimby, who splits her time between Winter Harbor, Maine, and Palm Beach, Fla. "At the end of the day, I insist that this is my property. I paid for it, and I paid to control its fate while I own it."

Proponents say the park would give a much-needed kick to Maine's struggling rural economy, which has suffered as northeastern paper companies have begun to lose out to overseas competitors.

The civic symbol of that decline is Millinocket, on the eastern edge of where the park would be. The once bustling mill town's two nearby paper mills, which were shuttered in recent years, have returned to operation, but with only half the 1,100 jobs they once provided. The town's desolate Main Street bears the visible scars of economic depression: boarded-up shops and storefronts unchanged in decades. Unemployment there is estimated to be as high as 30 percent.

An economic impact study commissioned by Restore estimates that a park would generate $109 million to $435 million in annual retail sales and bring the state 5,000 to 20,000 new jobs.

But Millinocket Town Manager Gene Conlogue, a leading critic of the proposed national park, calls those numbers a pipe dream. He has printed bumper stickers that are plastered on more than a few pickup trucks in town and that say "RESTORE: Boston, Leave our Maine Way of Life Alone."

"Are things ever going to return to be the way they were? No. But a national park is not the answer. It would be death of the wood products industry," Conlogue said.

Pointing to the revival of the mills and the recent arrival in town of a manufacturing company, he said: "The answer is to diversify the economy through industry. A park would just be bringing in seasonal, low-paying, trinket-selling jobs that'll make people even poorer."

Quimby, meanwhile, is pressing on. She met with state environmental leaders recently to discuss plans to designate a hiking and canoeing trail along the eastern branch of the Penobscot River, commemorating the route traversed by Henry David Thoreau in 1857.

"It's not a park, but it would be a start," she said. "We still have a long way to go."

"This content originally appeared as a copyrighted article in the Washington Post and is used here with permission."