Roxanne Quimby | Controversy in Maine's North Woods
By the summer of 2007, Roxanne Quimby had spent $39 million to purchase 80,000 acres of wilderness. Nearly 65,000 acres of it lies between Baxter State Park and the East Branch of the Penobscot River. To her mind, a park is the only reasonable destiny for this land: “If we leave this to chance, we will not have the opportunity to make decisions about what happens next.”
In the process of making these purchases, Roxanne gobbled up hunting grounds, snowmobile trails, and some beloved primitive camps that families and hunters had passed down through generations. “I own it now,” she proclaimed. “Buying the land also means I am buying the right to call the shots.”
Roxanne, now the undisputed queen bee of the North Woods, returns to the map: “These two pieces of land here effectively stop all east–west traffic. This bridge, the Whetstone Bridge, here — it’s one of the very significant nails in the coffin because it’s the only way to get across the river for something like 30 miles. Okay, you can go over the bridge, but you can’t go across my land with a car. So you can have your bridge, but it ain’t doin’ you any good. I’m closing in, and I’m doing this to demonstrate that you cannot leave this to chance.”
She is speaking broadly to those who oppose a park, those who ironically also claim they believe in property rights: “Yes, it’s a private road, but it’s been in such permissive use for so many years, people forget that the state doesn’t own that road.”
Up there, where she is pointing, people slapped bumper stickers onto their cars and wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Ban Roxanne.” Letters to the editor condemned her.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I was really blown away. I could not believe people would come after me like that, so personally and with such venom. I thought I would be appreciated. I mean, doesn’t everybody love a park?”
At the time, Roxanne was on the board of RESTORE: “People up there hate RESTORE, so I put some distance between us at that point. I didn’t need that.”
But Roxanne and RESTORE work in supportive ways. “We are not a land trust,” Jym St. Pierre clarifies. “RESTORE does not buy land. Rather, we’re an advocacy group. We promote ideas. The idea of this park is still being hotly debated more than 13 years after it was first proposed. MWNP remains robust, in part, because Roxanne Quimby has made it tangible. There is nothing more real than real estate, and Roxanne has repeatedly said she would like to see the lands she has acquired become the seeds of a new national park. What she owns now would be a very credible beginning.”
When Roxanne was growing up, she often played Monopoly. “I loved that game,” she says. “I had two sisters and a brother, all younger, and they were always available to play. I hated to lose, so I always made sure, one way or the other, that I won.”
This is how Governor Baxter got his park — one piece at a time, with many setbacks and disappointments. But in the end, he won.
Roxanne’s plan is somewhat counterintuitive. She returns to the bees of her past: “To me, ownership and private property were the beginning of the end in this country. Once the Europeans came in, drawing lines and dividing things up, things started getting exploited and overconsumed. But a park takes away the whole issue of ownership. It’s off the table; we all own it and we all share it. It’s so democratic.”
But before she can pass it on to the public, she has to own it.
The Piscataquis river runs through Guilford, a town of rugged people, about 1,500 of them, most of them working at the local mills that have for years made wood products such as golf tees, toothpicks, Popsicle sticks, and wooden nickels. Guilford’s town manager, Tom Goulette, leans on the counter and talks about the time when townspeople watched the long-haired Roxanne and her company outgrow his town.
Everyone has a story about her: how Burt used to borrow the town shovel and take it over to Burt’s Bees to clear their walks, as if they couldn’t afford to buy a $10 shovel for themselves. Same with the town broom. Even the town flyswatter was borrowed. Burt’s Bees stood out for its long-haired ways and its unorthodox style. “For all the makeup she made, I don’t think she’s ever worn any,” Goulette notes dryly.
“She made so much money in Maine, she had to leave the state to make more money,” he adds, somewhat sour that she took her business south. But he corrects himself: “She was different. Hard-nosed, successful. She’s made it and she deserves it, just like Bill Gates. I don’t agree with her, but I do respect her.”