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For more than a decade, there's been talk of creating a new national park in the heart of the Maine woods. Most locals were opposed from the start, but as the economy here changes, opposition is softening.
For generations, Maine's North Woods have provided pulp for the state's paper mills and created plenty of good jobs in an area with little other economic activity. But now the paper industry is struggling and a mill job is no longer a guarantee.
It's been three years since work stopped at the mill in Millinocket, Maine, and there are signs everywhere of the toll that's taking: vacant storefronts; 50-percent-off signs; and on the block in front of the mill, several homes for sale, one with a handmade sign saying, "$25,000 as-is — make an offer."
Millnocket is known as the Magic City because it was carved out of the woods by lumberjacks almost overnight. But the area's two paper mills have changed owners several times, including just this month. Both have recently been idle. Residents are crossing their fingers about going back to work, but the local unemployment rate stands at 21 percent.
Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue, an opponent of the proposed national park, says residents are panicked over the economy. For Conlogue and others, distrust of the federal government and potential park restrictions on certain outdoor activities like timber harvesting are big concerns.
"We don't need preservationists here telling us how to keep our land and ... keep us off the land," he says.
The national park is being proposed by Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of the natural products company Burt's Bees. After selling the company, Quimby used her newfound fortune to buy up land in Maine's North Woods from downsizing paper companies. Some local residents see her as a villain for closing off her land to hunting and snowmobiling — activities the paper companies have long allowed — and for taking it out of timber production.
Others are changing their minds.
"Without a doubt I was Roxanne's strongest critic when this all started. In fact, you're talking to a guy that had a 'Ban Roxanne' bumper sticker on his vehicle for a long, long time," says George Smith, former longtime executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, a powerful voice for hunters and anglers.
About five years ago, Smith says, he got an unexpected phone call asking him to take part in a series of stakeholder meetings with the woman he thought was his enemy.
"I thought it was some kind of a joke. There was no way Roxanne Quimby was calling me," he says.
As a result of those meetings, Smith has peeled the bumper sticker off his car. He now supports a park-feasibility study mostly because Quimby has backed away from plans for a vast park. Now her goal is to donate 70,000 acres to the National Park Service along with a sizable endowment to manage the park. As a hard-fought compromise with park opponents, Quimby is also proposing to buy an additional 30,000 acres, turn it over to the state of Maine and allow for hunting and snowmobiling.
But in the national park, she pictures more of a wilderness adventure limited to hiking, camping and fishing.
The Maine Legislature and the town of Millinocket recently passed resolves against the park, and most of the state's congressional delegation has expressed opposition to it. But the local chamber of commerce and some other groups have endorsed a feasibility study. Quimby counts that as progress.
"I think that I am starting to sense a shift in attitude with people who probably 10 years ago would have demonized me or demonized the beliefs that I had about conservation and recreation in the area," she says, "but they're sitting at the table with me now and talking about how can we make this work for everybody?"
Quimby is not giving up on what she hopes will be her personal legacy. It took two decades to build Burt's Bees from a roadside stand into a multimillion-dollar company. And when it comes to creating a national park, she says, she's willing to be patient.
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