EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine —The nearly 88,000 acres were meant to be a gift, donated along with a $40 million endowment so that part of Maine’s pristine North Woods might be protected forever as a national park.
But it’s not easy to give away a national park; Roxanne Quimby, the wealthy, polarizing co-founder of Burt’s Bees, has been trying for more than a decade. Her effort has bitterly divided this corner of New England, where shuttered paper mills have led to crippling unemployment and a shrinking population, and where distrust of the federal government runs as deep as the rivers and streams.
“We don’t need you here!” one man at a packed public meeting last week shouted at National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.
“You really, truly don’t care what these people think!” another man fumed.
The emotion isn’t surprising. Out West, ranchers and farmers have long complained of federal encroachment on private land. But the fight over the Maine woods involves a private landowner wanting to hand over property, along with an unprecedented amount of funding. A century ago, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. tried a similar approach to create the first national park east of the Mississippi — Acadia National Park on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. History has been slow to repeat itself.
In a single day last week, on a swing that included the angry crowd in East Millinocket, a more supportive crowd at a university auditorium in Orono and a couple of other stops, Jarvis got both slammed and supported.
He heard what a great idea the proposed national park would be — and what a terrible idea. He heard the government hailed as a potential savior for the area’s economy — and as a land-grabbing force that could harm the timber industry and destroy a way of life.
Some accused Quimby of trying to buy a legacy through her donation, and they criticized her son, who has taken over the effort in recent years, as a smooth talker full of empty promises. Others praised the family, calling their offer an act of extraordinary generosity, a “once-in-a-century gift.”
Clad in his green-and-gray Park Service uniform and a stiff-brimmed ranger hat, Jarvis did his best to allay fears and correct misconceptions about the Park Service using eminent domain or imposing a litany of new regulations. A national park could give the local economy a boost, he said. But he acknowledged it wouldn’t be a panacea.
“What I have heard here today are a lot of concerns, deep concerns,” Jarvis told the mostly suspicious audience in East Millinocket. “I take every one of these concerns very seriously.”
Outside, along Highway 157, dueling signs declare “National Park No!” and “National Park Yes!” Signs on mailboxes and in front yards read, “No Park for ME.”
“How many times do we have to say, ‘No, it’s not what we want for the area?’ ” Millinocket resident Lorri Haskell said, noting that residents in towns near the proposed park voted against its creation, that the governor and legislature are opposed and that Maine’s congressional delegation refuses to introduce the measure necessary to create a national park.
That leaves only the prospect of President Obama using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare the land a national monument — something he has done nearly two dozen times while in office.
“It has nothing to do with us anymore,” Haskell said as she sat at her kitchen table. “It has to do with whether President Obama is going to betray us. Is this how democracy works?”
A mile away, not far from empty storefronts and the mill where Great Northern Paper churned out paper and prosperity for more than a century, Bret Doe said it was time to embrace a different future.
“The paper mills are gone, and they’re never coming back,” said Doe, the son of a police chief and grandson of a paper maker. “The area is slow to realize that.”
Quimby’s quest took root in the early 2000s. Flush from the success of Burt’s Bees — the skin-care company famous for its lip balm — she had been busy acquiring huge swaths of land east of Baxter State Park, home to Katahdin, the state’s highest peak and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
From the start, her dream faced skepticism, and her actions stirred only more acrimony. She closed her land to hunters and snowmobilers, violating a long-held Maine tradition of allowing such uses on private property. She also evicted people who had leased long-established camps along the East Branch of the Penobscot River.
“The only landowner up here who ever closed off land to the public is Roxanne Quimby,” said Anne Mitchell, president of the Maine Woods Coalition, a group opposed to the national park. “She ruffled a lot of feathers.”
In 2012, Quimby stepped away from the project and handed the reins to her son, Lucas St. Clair, who returned to his native Maine to salvage the effort.
St. Clair is 37, a tall, bearded father of two, a one-time thru-hiker on the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail who also worked as a fishing guide in the Pacific Northwest. From the start, he took a more conciliatory approach, determined to win hearts and minds in a way his mother never did.
He restored public access to tens of thousands of acres east of the Penobscot River and vowed to keep them as a recreation area for hunting, snowmobiling and fishing even if a national park or monument were next door. He built an 18-mile loop road around the proposed park, along with camping areas and hiking trails, and invited the public to come see it for themselves.
He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a public relations agency and a Washington lobbying firm, part of an effort to “reset” the conversation with residents, Maine’s congressional delegation and the White House. He commissioned economic studies detailing how other communities had benefited from proximity to national parks and cited poll findings that two-thirds of residents in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers much of the state, would support a North Woods park.
St. Clair also pounded the pavement, trying to assure folks that the government would not use eminent domain or impose air quality standards or buffer zones that would hurt the forestry industry. Mostly, he listened.
“I’ve had 10,000 cups of coffee with just about everyone,” he said. “I’ve stood at the end of the grocery store checkout line and asked people what they thought. I’ve sat in a million town meetings. I went to bean-hole suppers and knocked on doors.”
His work has thawed once-chilly relationships and won allies around the state. The Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce endorsed the proposal. The Bangor Daily News also backed it, saying the “region needs new life.”
Still, opposition has remained fierce — and fiercely outspoken.
“Sometimes big ideas are just plain bad ideas,” a group of opponents, including leaders of the Maine Forest Products Council and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, wrote to St. Clair and his mother last year. “This is a region with incredible assets and huge potential, but unless you end your quest, the prospect of a national park or some other version of federal control, such as a national monument, will hang over the region like a dark cloud, scaring off the investment the region needs and deserves.”
Last fall, unable to persuade members of Maine’s congressional delegation to introduce park legislation, St. Clair began a push to convince President Obama to designate the land a national monument. Were that to happen this year — fittingly, he says, during the Park Service’s centennial — the land would be managed virtually the same as a national park.
St. Clair often mentions other parks’ similar beginnings. Acadia began as Sieur de Monts National Monument. Grand Canyon National Park began as a monument designated by President Theodore Roosevelt. The creation of the modern Grand Teton National Park involved decades of bitter controversy over Rockefeller’s efforts to donate thousands of acres to the project, with Franklin D. Roosevelt first designating that land a national monument.
“In some ways, it’s par for the course,” St. Clair said. “People are really nervous about the unknown.”
Locals debated the unknown during the hours-long public gatherings last week.
“This would be a tremendous economic boon unique to this region. It’s printing money,” one man said.
“This is an insult of the people of Maine,” a woman argued. “It looks like a backroom deal.”
Scores of comment cards also filled wicker baskets:
“I regard this as nothing less than a hostile takeover of our land!”
“Change is inevitable, it is essential to survival.”
During his visit, Park Service Director Jarvis told them that while he hasn’t yet decided on his recommendation, the Quimby land “is absolutely worthy” and the promised $40 million endowment invaluable for getting it ready for the public.
“We have no representation anywhere in the national park system like the forests and lakes of northern Maine,” Jarvis said, noting how they once had inspired the likes of Henry David Thoreau, among others.
To which opponents merely scoff. “A monument? What in blazes are they trying to monumentalize?” countered Mitchell of the Maine Woods Coalition. “There’s nothing extraordinary about it, except for a lot of black flies.”
Critics still worry that a park or monument would only create a modest number of low-paying, seasonal jobs. They fear the government’s presence could scare off other investments and hinder Maine’s multibillion-dollar wood products industry.
But many also feel that Quimby’s money — not to mention her spot on the board of the National Park Foundation — matter more in Washington than the objections of local residents. It hasn’t been a fair fight, they say.
Away from all the emotions, St. Clair’s Jeep Cherokee bounced along bumpy logging roads last Monday and onto the 18-mile loop of his family’s proposed national monument.
A light snow was falling. The peak of Katahdin briefly pierced the low clouds in the distance. St. Clair pointed out primitive campgrounds and privies awaiting visitors. He spotted moose tracks and a beaver dam. Beech, birch and maple trees extended in every direction.
It was remote and scenic, serene and undisturbed — everything the towns he had left behind were not.
St. Clair parked his Jeep and hiked through the woods to a place called Orin Falls, where he has spent countless hours canoeing, fishing and swimming.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the fight,” he said. “It becomes this, ‘Are you for it or against it?’ But there’s more to it than that. . . . It’s a magical place.”
The spruces and pines towered along the banks. The snow kept falling. Rapids crashed over ancient boulders. For a moment, all the arguing seemed far away, and the only sound was the roar of nature.