LEWISTON — What was intended to be a meeting to educate the public on a proposal to create a national park in northern Maine instead demonstrated how polarizing the issue is among state residents, including those in southern areas.

Among its most controversial aspects is its principal advocate, Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt’s Bees and one of Maine’s most prominent land conservationists. She would donate 70,000 acres of her land for the park.

Phyllis Ouellette of Auburn, one of the 65 people who attended Monday’s meeting, said keeping the northern Maine woods in private hands and open for all recreational users is the best way to preserve access to it for the most users.

But Steve Wight of Newry, a retired member of Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission and now a Bethel consultant, said he believes an organized national park would draw even more people than those who currently visit the privately owned forest today.

The forum at the Franco American Heritage Center in Lewiston was hosted by Stanton Bird Club, the Androscoggin River Land Trust and Bates College, and featured several experts. But unlike other forums on the topic held in northern Maine, Quimby did not attend.

“We want to get Roxanne here next year,” said Susan Hayward, trip leader for the Stanton Bird Club.

Quimby is at the center of a debate that has raged for several years over the future of the North Woods. She has bought and conserved about 120,000 acres of land in the Maine northern forest, and wants to donate 70,000 acres of that to the National Park Service.

Making her proposal more intriguing — or daunting, depending on whom you ask — is that she was named last year to the board of the National Park Foundation, the charitable partner of the National Park Service, by its chairman, Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar.

Quimby says she is protecting the land to restore at-risk native species. But some residents of northern Maine have questioned her motives and contend she has been inconsistent regarding what uses will be allowed on her land.

The four panelists who spoke Monday said the national park proposal issue is complicated, and their comments suggested there is little middle ground.

Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said the northern forest is best enjoyed as it always has been – through the willingness of large landowners to permit recreational use that is made easier by state laws that limit their liability if they do keep their land open.

But Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said forestland is changing hands at a rapid pace unheard of 20 years ago, and it isn’t clear how much access owners will continue to provide. She said this is a concern for conservationists and recreational users alike.

“Now land is owned by LLCs (limited liability companies) and we don’t know who they are,” Pohlmann said.

Bryan Wentzell of the Appalachian Mountain Club, which runs three sporting camps at the doorstep of the North Woods, said sustainable forestry, recreation and conservation can be practiced in unison in privately owned working forest.

“In the 1930s there was a proposal to turn Baxter State Park into a national park, and AMC opposed it then because a park is about large lodges and scenic roads,” Wentzell said.

For Lewiston Public Library Director Rick Speer, who moderated the panel discussion, the debate is both fascinating and significant to southern Maine.

“Many of us down here love the North Maine Woods and are really concerned about the long-term access we’ve enjoyed for years,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: [email protected]