Roxanne Quimby | Controversy in Maine's North Woods
Some may have chuckled over the name, but most of them bought it. She couldn’t make enough lip balm. She moved her wax and the cauldrons to the abandoned schoolhouse in Guilford. No running water or electricity, either, but she barely noticed, setting the cauldron on the gas range and sometimes working until midnight by the light of kerosene lamps. She added a drawing of Burt to the label, his bearded face representing anything but beauty. Buyers embraced the product even more.
That was the beginning of Burt’s Bees, which today is the best-selling natural personal-care brand of cosmetics in the country, a brand market researchers call “lightning in a bottle.”
But this little handcrafted product was hardly so back then. Roxanne followed the destiny of her creation one step at a time, a road without a map that led her, after 20 years of living and doing business from a remote Maine town, to North Carolina, where she felt the business climate was more favorable. Maine was high on taxes and low on accessibility. It was 1994. Her twins were in boarding school. As much as she hated to leave, Roxanne left for the South, not with a backpack but with a $3 million business of her own creation in tow.
The same year Roxanne left Maine, the Warren division of Scott Paper, one of the two largest landholders in Maine, sold everything it owned to Sappi — South African Pulp and Paper Industries Ltd. It represented a shift in the global market and a shift in the life of the Maine woods at least as significant as the end of the river drives. Apparently no one foresaw that opening the world to free trade would one day steal away the North Woods. China and South America became easier and cheaper places to find wood and paper. Seemingly overnight, the North Woods went up on the block. Tracts of thousands of acres of land came up for sale. A Seattle-based firm called Plum Creek — which turned out to be as much a real-estate developer as a timber company — was buying.
In 1998, Sappi sold its land to Plum Creek: in all, nearly a million acres. If the arrival of Roxanne Quimby caused a tremor, Plum Creek’s emergence caused an earthquake throughout this, the largest expanse of wilderness east of the Mississippi.
“Plum Creek is now the largest landowner in the United States,” Jym St. Pierre says. He is the Maine director of a group called RESTORE: The North Woods. In 1994, RESTORE put forward the idea of creating a 3.2-million-acre park: Maine Woods National Park (MWNP). “I saw the signs on the horizon, even back in the 1980s, that things were going to change,” St. Pierre says. “What I didn’t predict was the speed of it. I didn’t think it was going to happen this fast. This is not evolution. This is a revolution.”
By 2005, Plum Creek had proposed a plan to rezone and subdivide 400,000 acres surrounding Moosehead Lake. The plan included development of two large resorts and nearly a thousand residential lots on a portion of the land. “This is the largest, most controversial project ever proposed in the history of Maine,” St. Pierre notes.
Unable to gain approval from LURC (the Land Use Regulation Commission, which acts as a zoning board for Maine’s unorganized townships), Plum Creek has revised the plan three times. Its current proposal is under review. Plum Creek has emphasized that most of the land will be placed under “working forest” and conservation easements, a move to calm the fears of environmentalists.
St. Pierre explains that some of the easements will continue to allow timbering, road construction, sawmills, cell towers, herbicide spraying, mining, even subdivision, and are not for conservation but for continuous forestry. “You can shape these easements any way you want,” he says. “Some of them are very good. These Plum Creek easements have no value.”
Plum Creek, however, has forced the hand of many in a state where employment is way down. St. Pierre quotes statistics: 5,000 people once worked in the mills of Millinocket and East Millinocket. Today, only 500 are employed there. That cabbage smell of the paper mills, once known as the smell of money, has been replaced by the faint odor of despair.
“I don’t blame people for clinging to the hope that some of those days will come back,” St. Pierre says. “The forestry industry will survive, but it won’t be the driver anymore. The biggest industry in Maine is tourism, and Plum Creek is trying to tap into that in a way that will give them maximum profit. They buy land cheap and sell it high. They still make money by cutting trees, but they make most of their money cutting up land.”
The debate in Maine over what should happen to this abandoned kingdom gets louder with each passing year. RESTORE has been vocal in its efforts to create the Maine Woods National Park, but its proposal has been rebuffed by many a Mainer. One bumper sticker reads: “RESTORE BOSTON: Leave the Maine Woods Alone.”
“For a long time, we had this big place, over 10 million acres, as big as the whole rest of New England, that people just forgot about,” St. Pierre explains. “It was a big blank spot on the map, and now everybody’s scrapping for it. Everything about this is big. It’s the last big place. Look around the country. I don’t know of any other place that’s in play like this. Even Alaska. We’re all trying to figure out what the brave new world will be up there.”
St. Pierre cites the paper companies’ indulgence in letting the public use their private lands: “The biggest reason we don’t have a national park in Maine today is because we’ve had a de facto park for generations. People feel entitled to that land, just because it’s always been there.”
St. Pierre’s father and grandfather worked in the mills and in the woods. “People thought this land was like a permanent institution, like the U.S. government,” he says. “They thought it was going to be there forever and always be the same. Well, no matter what happens, that is not the case.”