For the past decade, Roxanne Quimby has been buying up thousands of acres of land in northern Maine with the long-term goal of making it part of a national park.

She now owns 100,000 acres in the Mount Katahdin region and is still buying.

So it came as a shock to Maine’s conservation community, as well as nearby residents, when she filed subdivision plans on 142 acres she owns in Willimantic and started logging the property this fall. The move stunned neighbors in the tiny town in southern Piscataquis County, who said they thought Quimby long ago had protected the parcel, which includes shoreline on Big Greenwood Pond, from development.

Quimby’s plan baffled nearby residents familiar with her policy of banning hunting and motorized vehicles on most of her land.

It has also raised concerns that the founder of Burt’s Bees, who funneled income from the sale of that business into conservation purchases, might develop some of her other holdings.

“This truly caught us by surprise,” said Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, a statewide forest conservation land trust.

Quimby could not be reached for comment last week. Mark Leathers, her spokesman and land manager, said Quimby is just trying to give something back to the region where she started Burt’s Bees, which she eventually sold for more than $177 million.

“Our message really is this genuine compassion for the local economy,” said Leathers. Among other benefits, it would provide a boost for the town’s tax base, he said.

Quimby bought the land in 2002, at the urging of neighbors who were trying to protect it from development, said Fran Leyman of Bowdoin. Leyman owns a camp on a half-acre lot she leased and then bought from International Paper Co., which at the time was selling a half-dozen leased lots and 142 surrounding acres for about $200,000.

Leyman couldn’t afford the price for the entire property, so she and other neighbors went looking for someone who could and approached Quimby.

“We walked her around the shore and showed her the old-growth trees, and she ended up buying the property,” said Leyman, whose husband, Carey Kish, is a freelance writer who writes an outdoors column in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Leyman said that at the time, Quimby’s condition for buying the land was that the neighbors permanently protect their own lands from development.

Leyman said she wasn’t able to find any land trusts or other conservation organizations interested in protecting her half-acre lot.

But an abutter, Joe Walters, found a partner in the Forest Society of Maine. The society agreed to hold an easement on Walters’ 200 acres, which encompasses about a third of the shoreline on Big Greenwood Pond.

Protecting the land was something he had always intended to do anyway, Walters said.

“It is a special little pond and has this old-time backwoods feel to it,” he said.

Leathers said developing the Willimantic land made sense to Quimby because the area nearby is already developed and it is part of an organized town with roads and electricity.

Plans for the subdivision are still incomplete. It is unclear whether the lots will be clustered and how big they will be. The idea is to sell the lots at affordable prices to 15 to 20 leaseholders who were displaced on these and other properties Quimby owns.

“Affordable to regular Maine folks,” was how Leathers described the prices.

Willimantic native Tom Adkins was hired to do the logging. He and his crew are cutting about 500 to 600 cords of wood at the direction of a state wildlife biologist who was hired to make sure the wood was sustainably harvested. The crew is sparing the beech trees, which provide food for wildlife, as well as the hemlocks, which are at the northern edge of their range.

The land partly surrounds Big Greenwood Pond, and lies within view of Maine Audubon Society’s Borestone Mountain Sanctuary. Ted Koffman, executive director of Maine Audubon, declined to comment on the proposed development.

Residents say they are not sure what to think of the plan.

“As a municipal officer, this is wonderful. It is good revenue for the town, but you have to put it in context,” said John Tatko, chairman of the board of selectmen.

He said that beyond concerns about the development, residents are also wondering what to make of Quimby’s recent appointment to the National Park Foundation, the charitable partner of the National Park Service, and what that might mean for the prospects for a national park in the region, which many bitterly oppose.

Willimantic had a population of 135, according to the 2000 census, but residents say the figure now is closer to 100. The town’s name was changed from Howard to Willimantic during its heyday in the 1880s, when the American Thread Co., of Willimantic, Conn., set up a spool factory to take advantage of the local supply of birch trees.

Today, Willimantic’s finances are strained, said Tatko. The town hall has no restrooms and has been restricted to no more than 30 people because of fire codes. Large meetings must be held in other towns. The cost of plowing the roads takes an $80,000 bite out of the annual $500,000 budget.

Residents say it is hard not to see the irony in the situation. Quimby has banned hunting and motorized vehicles, such as snowmobiles, from most of her lands in Maine. They wonder whether access to this parcel might be even more restricted once it is subdivided.

“I have had a hard time grasping this,” said Mary Bessey, a member of the Willimantic Planning Board, which will get its first look at the plans at a Dec. 8 meeting in nearby Monson.

The project will be a test of new town ordinances governing subdivision and shoreline development.

Walters, the abutting landowner on the pond, said he is still looking into what steps he might take to oppose Quimby’s development. He said he is glad that at least his part of the lakeshore has been permanently preserved.

“It is more important than ever that our land is in conservation,” said Walters.

Leathers, Quimby’s property manager, said he couldn’t say whether she has similar plans for any of the other timberland she owns.

He said Quimby has no easements on any of her land to protect it from development.

“She enjoys having unencumbered title to property,” he said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby is not related to Roxanne Quimby.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]