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At loggerheads over Maine woods

Park idea collides with rural lifestyle

MILLINOCKET, Maine -- Eugene Conlogue, the town manager of this built-from-scratch community on the doorstep of the Maine wilderness, leans back in his chair, knits his brow, and narrows his eyes as he looks out an office window streaked with cold, steady rain.

 

The subject is a proposed national park, supported by vocal environmentalists and Hollywood luminaries such as Robert Redford, which would encompass 3.2 million acres of the most spectacular wild area east of the Mississipppi River.

"It's absolutely an unwanted entity here," Conlogue said. "It would be less welcome than finding Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole."

Such are the passions shared by many of the 5,200 people left in this one-mill town, where the paper mill has been shuttered for a year. Nothing less is at stake, they say, than the forestry jobs and hardy outdoor life that northern Maine families have enjoyed for generations.

But for Roxanne Quimby, a multimillionaire businesswoman, the worries of blue-collar families in out-of-the-way places like Millinocket should take a back seat to the global need for a sound environment.

That's why Quimby, the cofounder of Burt's Bees natural-care products, recently purchased a wilderness township near here. Her intention: to ban hunting, logging, all-terrain vehicles, and possibly snowmobiles from the property; add more pieces of Maine wilderness to the 40,000 acres she already owns; and donate the package to the federal government for a national park.

"This is a microcosm of a vision I have for a healthier planet," said Quimby, 53. "I was a child of the `60s, and I was born to change the world."

Many Millinocket families have another view.

"When someone comes here and wants to take that away from us, it's like thieves in the night," said Jimmy Busque, a laid-off mill-worker who owns hunting camps that he fears would be banished under national park rules. "What right do they have to come up here and tell us how to live? The arrogance."

Busque also is referring to RESTORE: The North Woods, a regional organization formed in Concord, Mass., that has been spearheading the park proposal. Jym St. Pierre, the group's Maine director, said he has collected more than 100,000 signatures in an effort to persuade Congress to launch a feasibility study of the proposal.

Polls indicate that most Mainers support the idea, St. Pierre said. But none of Maine's congressional delegation backs a national park, and the Legislature sent a joint resolution to President Bush in 2001 that opposed the idea.

Still, St. Pierre is undaunted. "We have to take the long view on this," said St. Pierre, who is trying to cobble together support from businesses, landowners, and preservationists. "It's like growing up; you have to go through it."

In communities like Millinocket, however, the park plan isn't even on life support. "These are people who don't live here and never want to live here," Conlogue said of RESTORE and its allies.

The siege mentality here appears to be reinforced by RESTORE's list of celebrity supporters such as Meryl Streep, Christopher Reeve, Harrison Ford, former broadcaster Walter Cronkite, musician Don Henley, and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

A hot-selling bumper sticker in Millinocket taps RESTORE's out-of-state roots in Massachusetts as a way to stoke opposition to the park. The sticker -- "RESTORE Boston: Leave our MAINE way of life alone" -- was designed three years ago by Conlogue.

Since then, the fear of a mammoth park has steadily simmered. But after Quimby's $12 million purchase last month of Township 5, Range 8 -- an "unorganized territory" of 24,000 acres beside Baxter State Park -- the simmer was brought to a boil. "I don't like her kind of people," Busque said. "She loves the woods to death, and that's part of the problem."

At a recent forum in Brewer, a suburb of Bangor on the Penobscot River, a protester in costume portrayed Quimby as a wolf disguised as Little Red Riding Hood. To date, Quimby has spent about $20 million on Maine land purchases.

For generations of Mainers, the woods have played a vital role in personal and state identity. Although most of the wilderness has been privately owned by forest-product companies for decades, Mainers have been allowed free access to the land to fish, hunt, camp, hike, and simply commune with the magnificent terrain.

St. Pierre stressed that under the national park proposal, all land would be collected from willing sellers. And the hunting camps such as Busque's, he said, would be allowed to remain.

But in a national park, some access would be restricted; recreational activities such as hunting would be confined to park "preserves"; and fees would be charged. As unwelcome as those changes would be to park opponents, however, their greater concern is a dramatic loss of forest industry that would devastate the sawdust-and-lumberjack lifeblood of the economy.

"I think it would be the worst thing possible for the North Woods region," said John Simko, the Greenville town manager, who founded the Maine Woods Coalition partly in response to RESTORE's interest in the region.

Simko endorses a broad proposal announced last month by Governor John Baldacci titled the Maine Woods Legacy, which seeks to balance preservation, recreation, and commercial use of the forest at a time of rapid, uncertain change.

Karin Tilberg, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Conservation, said such initiatives are critical. More than 5.5 million acres of the North Woods has changed hands in the last six years, she said, and a large percentage of that property has been sold to investment companies by lumber firms buffeted by the industry's globalization and cheap foreign labor.

A major worry, Tilberg said, is that short-term investment objectives will skew traditional forest management. Already, she said, so-called kingdom lots are being purchased by private individuals who wish to carve out a wilderness retreat at a relatively modest price.

For national park foes who rail against its potential restrictions, a trend toward privately owned estates would be an even greater blow to the wilderness access they prize so much.

The Appalachian Mountain Club, for one, has jumped into the land acquisition mix. In what the AMC called the most significant purchase in its 137-year history, the club recently bought 37,000 acres from International Paper Co. for $14.2 million. The tract, east of Greenville in an area known as the "100-Mile Wilderness," is considered one of the most environmentally important and visually beautiful portions of the Appalachian Trail area.

Walter Graff, deputy director of the AMC, said the club has not taken a position on Quimby's purchase, which some observers say is an example of the checkerboard of woodlands owned by private individuals, conservation and recreation organizations, timber companies, and investment coalitions.

Quimby, however, is adamant that her path is a correct one -- even if it excludes the industrial forest that has sustained Maine families for generations. "This is a bigger question than northern Maine," Quimby said. "It's a global question."

Quimby said she understands the Maine rural economy as well as anyone. She bought 30 acres in Guilford in 1973, after traveling cross-country in a Volkswagen bus with her future husband in search of natural, unspoiled beauty. There, they built a cabin with no electricity and running water.

After the pair split, Quimby met Burt Shavitz, a beekeeper whom she encouraged to adorn small honey jars with decorative labels and branch out into candles and natural skin-care products such as beeswax lip balm.

Burt's Bees moved to North Carolina in 1993 because of the foundering Maine economy, Quimby said. There, it enjoyed enormous prosperity. As a result, Quimby recently sold 80 percent of Burt's Bees to an investment company for $180 million, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Much of the proceeds will go to a nonprofit foundation that Quimby, who divides her time between Maine and North Carolina, has established. From its coffers, she estimated, she will have an additional $5 million to $10 million to spend on Maine land "before I stop."

A national park, she said, "can be an example for all of America that we still have the will to do this for our children."

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