Lucas St. Clair is thawing, ever so slightly, in opposition to Roxanne Quimby’s vision for a Maine North Woods National Park.
By Jeff Clark / Photo by Jody Roberts/Flickr)
Lucas St. Clair works very hard to make people forget Roxanne Quimby. As the new face of the plan to create a national park in northern Maine, he has opened once-closed land to hunting and ATVs and has drunk countless cups of coffee at kitchen tables across the Katahdin region convincing locals that the park will help them. He’s young, only 35, Maine born and raised, a fishing guide, an avid bird hunter and hiker, an engaging and persuasive speaker totally the opposite of Quimby’s perceived arrogance and high-handed nature.
He is also her son.
Since 2012, St. Clair has traveled throughout Maine soothing ruffled feathers and winning converts — or at the least reluctant admirers. At the same time, Quimby has quite deliberately vanished from the radar screen. She doesn’t give interviews or make public statements. In December 2012, she announced — through St. Clair — that she was, for the time being, withdrawing her proposal to the National Park Service for a North Woods National Park on 100,000 acres she owns east of Baxter State Park, following a firestorm of opposition from everyone up to and including the state legislature and its congressional delegation.
Matt Libby Jr., owner of Libby Camps in Ashland, remembers guiding Quimby down the East Branch of the Penobscot River, which runs through the middle of her proposed national park. She told him it was the first time she had set foot on the land, despite buying it years earlier. Libby, needless to say, was not impressed.
St. Clair, on the other hand, has walked, canoed, fished, and snowmobiled across just about every inch of the land owned by Quimby’s holding company, Elliotsville Plantation Inc. (EPI). St. Clair is the chairman of a board composed of himself, his twin sister, Hannah, and Quimby.
“I definitely have a lot of respect for him,” Libby says. “The way he’s going about doing this now is pretty impressive, no matter if you agree with him or not. He’s got a lot of people who were dead set against [the park] rethinking it.”
The idea for a North Woods National park first surfaced back in the late 1990s when a tiny Massachusetts-based group, RESTORE: The North Woods, proposed a massive 3.2-million-acre federal park encompassing much of northern Maine. To say that the idea was not well received would be an understatement. With a few exceptions, the idea was so controversial that even the state’s land conservation and environmental communities reacted publicly with a deafening silence.
In 2003, former Greenville resident Roxanne Quimby bought her first 24,000 acres of wilderness and announced her intention to buy more to create a national park near Baxter State Park, Maine’s iconic public space. Quimby, cofounder of the Burt’s Bees line of natural healthcare products, had sold the company (after acrimoniously moving it out of Maine a few years earlier in a dispute with the state’s Department of Labor) for a reported $350 million. Suddenly the national park idea had deep pockets behind it.
Quimby’s heart may have been in the right place, but her public image was anything but warm and fuzzy. Her acquisitions were immediately posted against snowmobiles, ATVs, hunting, and other traditional public uses. Camp owners who had maintained cottages on leased lots, sometimes for generations, were told they were no longer welcome, and their leases were not renewed. She repeatedly ran into unyielding opposition from local residents and municipalities, as well as statewide organizations such as the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM) and the Maine Snowmobile Association.
Meanwhile, conservation organizations and the state of Maine were already protecting huge swaths of the North Woods through easements and outright purchases. Most recently, Plum Creek signed a conservation easement with the Forest Society of Maine and The Nature Conservancy on some 363,000 acres of wilderness in the Moosehead Lake region. Today, more than 2 million acres from the St. John Valley to Moosehead to Katahdin are protected from development while maintaining public access, traditional uses, and timber harvesting.
So it’s reasonable to ask why a national park is needed or even relevant when such a quasi-park already exists. “When it comes to permanently protecting this amazing piece of Maine and ensuring that the proposed park has the greatest possible economic benefit to the region, a national park is by far the best option,” St. Clair insists.
St. Clair was born during Quimby’s marriage to George St. Clair. The couple divorced when he was four, and Lucas grew up in the Guilford area, splitting his time between his parents’ homes. He owned and ran Mama’s Boy Bistro in Winter Harbor for a few years in the early 2000s and eventually worked as a float-fishing guide in the Pacific Northwest. In 2012, he moved his family from Seattle to Portland and stepped into a more prominent role in the national park debate. He almost immediately changed the tone of the discussion — for one, by actually talking with, rather than talking to, the people who would be most affected by a new park.
“I believe that sitting down and talking honestly and openly with people is the best way to move any issue forward,” he says. “I’ve always thought that, and it’s been proven to me again and again in the past few months.”
The RESTORE proposal still poses a stumbling block in the public’s perception, although St. Clair goes out of his way to distance himself from it. “I completely understand the opposition to that idea,” he states. “I’m opposed to it myself. It doesn’t make any sense.”
St. Clair acknowledges that pure wilderness conservation is now a secondary consideration. “In many ways, our conservation objectives have already been achieved,” St. Clair admits. “The [land preservation] efforts of the past 20 to 25 years have been wonderful. But we’re still faced with the fundamental economic issues plaguing northern Maine.”
A national park or national recreation area, he argues, would be a natural draw for millions of visitors. “When we think of conservation, we have to ask, ‘Conservation for whom?’ Who really benefits from conservation except the landscape?” he says. “Now we need to think about how we can leverage that conservation to help the rural economy. [National park advocates] are looking at this through an economic lens rather than a conservation lens.”
George Smith, former director of the SAM, once counted himself proudly as one of Quimby’s harshest critics. He spoke out often and loudly against the idea of a national park in northern Maine. Today, Smith is a grudging supporter of the park and an open admirer of St. Clair, largely because of the economic argument.
Lucas St. Clair’s appearance as the new public face of EPI does not surprise Smith. Quimby’s sour relationships with the federal and state governments, as well as her unpopular image in Maine, almost dictated a change in strategy and personality. “I really like Lucas,” Smith allows. “He’s someone who knows and enjoys the outdoors. He has opened up 40,000 acres [of Quimby land] to hunting, and my goal has always been to have as much public access to the land as possible.”
Smith still isn’t certain that a national park will ever happen in the North Woods, but “the lack of economic opportunity up there has always been my focus. [Millinocket-based] Great Northern Paper once employed 4,800 people. Now it has 250 [212 workers laid off in February remain idle as the mill owner negotiates with an electricity supplier on a revenue-sharing agreement]. We can rail against the federal government and a national park all we want, but Acadia National Park attracts almost as many people every year as all the state parks combined.”
Bob Meyers likes St. Clair, too, but as executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association he still doesn’t buy the national park arguments. “Obviously Lucas has done an excellent job of repackaging things,” Meyers says, “but it’s still not a good idea.”
For Meyers, the issue boils down to local versus federal control. “All we have to do is look at what happened during the federal shutdown last year, when barricades went up at Acadia,” he notes. A national park “effectively eliminates any possible aspect of what happens on that land and places it in the hands of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.”
Meyers argues that the current land conservation model “has worked forever,” and it only requires some publicity to bring in more visitors. “Maine already has a lot of public access to incredible wilderness areas,” he says. “We just have to let more people know about it.”
St. Clair’s current vision calls for a 75,000-acre park with an accompanying 75,000-acre national recreation area, which would be open to more traditional uses than the park. He emphasizes the 150,000-acre limit (Baxter holds 209,501 acres). “That’s the maximum we would put in the [enabling federal] legislation we hope to submit,” he says. His timeline calls for dropping the bill in the Congressional hopper in 2016, the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service.
Many in the North Woods business community already support him — the Katahdin Region Chamber of Commerce recently gave him a unanimous vote of support. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s largest environmental organization, has indicated its approval.
“It’s a big challenge,” he says. “We want to have full local support, and we want to let the Congressional delegation know the support is there.” He points to an economic study showing that a park that drew only 15 percent of the visitors Acadia sees would add 450 new jobs to the Katahdin region. “You can’t argue with numbers like that,” he says. “We’d be crazy to turn our backs on it.”
But he knows he still has a lot of coffee to drink.