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Burt’s Bees founder hopes to create new national park

Conservationist Roxanne Quimby has bought more than 120,000 acres of Maine woodlands. Conservationist Roxanne Quimby has bought more than 120,000 acres of Maine woodlands. (Robert F. Bukaty/ Associated Press)
By David Sharp
Associated Press / March 28, 2011

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TOWNSHIP 3, RANGE 8, Maine — The state’s sportsmen were outraged when Roxanne Quimby, the conservation-minded founder of Burt’s Bees cosmetics, bought up tens of thousands of acres of Maine’s fabled North Woods — and had the audacity to forbid hunters, loggers, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles on the expanses.

Quimby confronted the hornet’s nest she had stirred up head-on — calling one of her sharpest critics, George Smith, then-executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. Smith couldn’t believe his ears. The back-to-the-earth advocate who made millions with her ecofriendly line of personal care products was calling him at home, on a Saturday morning?

“I thought someone was playing a joke on me when she called,’’ Smith said.

That call in 2006 opened a face-to-face dialogue with some of her biggest critics over the land she bought — more than 120,000 acres of woodlands.

Quimby wants to give more than 70,000 wild acres next to Maine’s cherished Baxter State Park to the federal government, hoping to create a Maine Woods National Park. She envisions a visitor center dedicated to Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist who made three trips to Maine in the 1800s.

The park would be nearly twice the size of Maine’s Acadia National Park.

In a giveback to sportsmen, her vision is to set aside another 30,000 acres of woodlands north of Dover-Foxcroft to be managed like a state park, with hunting and snowmobiling allowed.

“There’s enough land that we can all get what we want,’’ said Quimby.

The multimillionaire disarmed her critics, who thought they would have to deal with a patchouli-scented eccentric. What they found was a woman who thinks big, but is a pragmatic problem-solver; someone who has strong ideals, but is willing to compromise; a self-made businesswoman who is willing to put up millions to achieve her conservation goals.

Smith, for one, came to respect and admire her.

“I was one of her harshest critics, so it’s really rather remarkable,’’ he said. “In the end, it’s her land, and she’ll do whatever suits her. But at least she’s listening.’’

Leaving a legacy
If she can win support, Quimby wants to time her donation in five years with the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service. It would be her gift, her legacy.

The Park Service is intrigued by Quimby’s idea. The last time a large national park was created was in Alaska in the 1980s under the Carter administration.

“The National Park Service would like to see additional opportunities for preserving these beautiful places and creating recreational opportunities in the Northeast,’’ said spokesman David Barna. “The proposal would be exciting for the National Park Service to evaluate.’’

The proposed national park land occupies a wild sprawl east of Baxter State Park. Much of it is covered with saplings as it recovers from logging operations that ended five years ago. Mountain ridges offer breathtaking views of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain and the northern end of the Appalachian Trail.

At the eastern boundary is the East Branch of the Penobscot River, on which Thoreau enjoyed a ride in a flat-bottomed bateau on his last visit to the region in 1857.

Animal tracks crisscross the snow-covered land, evidence that it’s teeming with wildlife, even during Maine’s harsh winter. Moose have made figure-8’s in the snow during their playful jousting. Smaller tracks indicate snowshoe hares, fisher cats, and coyotes. Endangered Canada lynx also prowl the area.

A business maverick
A native of Massachusetts, Quimby was the black sheep of a family in which her father was an engineer and a salesman and her sisters both earned their MBAs. Foregoing the business track, she went to art school in San Francisco, where she joined the “good life’’ back-to-the-land movement led by Helen and Scott Nearing.

With $3,000 in savings, she and her boyfriend ended up in Maine in 1975 — not because of the state’s rugged natural beauty but because the land was cheap.

They bought 30 acres in Guilford and built a cabin with an outhouse. They cut their own firewood. What staples they didn’t grow, they bought in 60-pound bags.

Eventually, Quimby met beekeeper Burt Shavitz, the namesake whose bearded face appears on the labels of Burt’s Bees lip balm, moisturizers, and shampoos. Quimby used Burt’s beeswax to create candles she sold at craft fairs in 1984. In the first year, her company made $20,000. In 1991, Burt’s Bees introduced what remains its most popular product — lip balm made from beeswax.

As the business grew, Quimby moved her business out of Maine, which she said was a punishing place to do business. She relocated to a North Carolina industrial park, and eventually bought out Shavitz’s shares.

As Burt’s Bees grew, she began buying land for conservation. Once again, she chose to buy in Maine. In 2003, she sold 80 percent of Burt’s Bees for $170 million, she said. She made another $180 million when she sold her remaining stake four years later to Clorox, which now owns Burt’s Bees.

Quimby, 60, says a new national park would conserve land and create jobs by drawing millions of additional visitors to the region to stay and spend.

It remains to be seen whether Quimby is one day mentioned in the same breath as Percival Baxter, who donated the land that became Baxter State Park, or George Dorr, whose efforts helped create Acadia National Park.

She lives most of the year in a home built by the Baxter family in Portland, overseeing her philanthropic organizations.

“You can trust her word. She’s one of these folks that if you shake her hand on a deal, then it’s a deal,’’ said Eugene Conlogue, town manager in Millinocket.