DAVID GREENE, Host:
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. Now the paper industry is struggling, and a mill job is no longer a guarantee. Susan Sharon, of Maine Public Broadcasting, reports that is leading people in Northern Maine to take a look at an old proposal turning all that privately owned forest into a national park.
SUSAN SHARON: The town of Millinocket is known as the Magic City because it was carved out of the woods by lumberjacks almost overnight. But in the past decade, 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.
GREENE: vacant storefronts, 50-percent-off signs, and on this block in front of the mill, several homes for sale - one with a handmade sign saying: $25,000 as is, make an offer.
EUGENE CONLOGUE: Yeah, we have people who are getting a little bit spooked and panicked. OK? And of course they are.
SHARON: Eugene Conlogue is the town manager of Millinocket, and an opponent of a proposed national park in the region. For Conlogue and others, distrust of the federal government and potential park restrictions on certain outdoor activities - like timber harvesting - are big concerns.
CONLOGUE: We don't need preservationists here telling us how to keep our land - and basically, not only keep our land, keep us off the land, OK?
SHARON: The national park is being proposed by Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of the natural personal-care products company known as Burt's Bees. After selling the company, Quimby used her newfound fortune to buy up land from downsizing paper companies that were selling off their holdings in Maine's north woods.
Some local residents still see her as a villain for closing off her land to hunting and snowmobiling, and for taking it out of timber production - activities the paper companies have long allowed. Others are changing their minds.
GEORGE SMITH: Well, without a doubt, I was Roxanne's strongest critic when this all started. In fact, you're talking to a guy who had a ban Roxanne bumper sticker on his vehicle for a long, long, long time.
SHARON: George Smith is the former, longtime executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, the 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.
SMITH: I thought it was some kind of a joke. There was no way that Roxanne Quimby was calling me.
SHARON: 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 plan. Now, her goal is to donate 70,000 acres to the National Park Service along with a sizeable 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE)
SHARON: It's 7:30 a.m., and Quimby and a guide are taking a tour of Millinocket Lake. A large moose is quietly munching pondweed. Mount Katahdin dominates the landscape like a fortress. To the east are her own holdings, the place she envisions for a Maine woods national park.
So this view will always be here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Basically, it's not going to change much.
SHARON: That's great.
Recently, the Maine legislature and the town of Millinocket 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 park feasibility study. And Quimby counts that as progress.
ROXANNE QUIMBY: 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. But they're sitting at the table with me now and talking about, how can we make this work for everybody?
SHARON: 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.
For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon.