From Bees to Trees

Roxanne Quimby moved to Maine because she had $3,000 in savings and Maine land was cheap. By a couple decades later, she had decided that that same land was priceless. Now she is hiking a trail blazed by some major philanthropists before her: trying to create a national park.

In the mid-1970s, Quimby relocated to rural Maine to live close to the earth, without electricity or running water. A decade later, she partnered with beekeeper Burt Shavitz and began making beeswax candles, polishes, and eventually the lip balm that turned Burt’s Bees into a multimillion-dollar personal-care company. In 2000, Quimby started buying up land in Maine’s north woods, surrounding Mount Katahdin, with some of her profits. She accelerated the process after she sold Burt’s Bees for hundreds of millions of dollars (she had previously bought out Burt). Quimby now controls 120,000 acres of woodland wilderness, and is seeking to donate most of it to become the germ of America’s newest national park.

Many of America’s iconic national parklands were the products of philanthropy. The Acadia, Muir Woods, and Guadalupe Mountains parks were all donated. Members of Pittsburgh’s Mellon family gave several Civil War battlefields, barrier islands as national seashores, and portions of Shenandoah National Park. (Herbert Hoover donated his personal camp to become part of Shenandoah, too.) The Rockefeller family is the preeminent patron of national parks—in particular John Jr. and his son Laurance. Their giving provided or enlarged Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Virgin Islands, Yosemite, Big Bend, Rocky Mountain, Acadia, Olympic, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and other park units.

Quimby’s desire to catalyze a park has proved controversial. A liberal environmentalist, she has closed access to land she has purchased, banned hunting and fishing, torn up roads and bridges, and stopped snowmobiling. Many residents of the Maine woods fear losing forestry jobs, development opportunities, and recreational use. (The paper companies that had previously been the proprietors allowed easy access for personal enjoyment.)

To soften resistance, Quimby has more recently offered to set aside parts of her land as a state park where some things like snowmobiling and hunting could be allowed. This has been well received, but “Ban Roxanne” bumper stickers can still be spotted across the state. How well she balances interests may determine whether Congress will designate a park that Quimby can give her land to by the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, as she hopes. 

This article originally appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Philanthropy magazine.