October 15, 2001 12:00 PM

Flying over the Maine North Woods in a Cessna, Roxanne Quimby gets skittish about the proximity of the treetops. But that doesn’t dim her enthusiasm as she surveys one of the East Coast’s last expanses of largely unspoiled wilderness. Quimby, 51, lived in it for 20 years, forsaking her middle-class roots to get back to nature. Home for part of that time was a one-room cabin without running water, electricity or a phone, and her refrigerator was a freezer liner buried in the cool earth.

From that start she somehow made millions. In the mid-1980s, working with a reclusive beekeeper named Burt Shavitz, Quimby launched Burt’s Bees, a line of beeswax products from candles to lip balm that blossomed into a $32 million-a-year empire. Martha Stewart has become one of her best customers, and Quimby now has a more conventional house. “But I felt there was something missing,” she says. “Anybody who has a lot of money knows it’s so empty.”

At an agricultural fair in 1998 she stopped at a booth operated by RESTORE: The North Woods, a group that has been lobbying since 1992 to make the area a national park. “The experience was like an epiphany,” Quimby says. She began buying land, mostly from logging contractors and individual owners. So far she has spent $5 million on 13,800 acres, with the aim of turning it over as the core of a 3.2 million-acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. Granted, Quimby isn’t planning to buy up the whole region, just enough to give the movement momentum. National parks can be created only by an act of Congress, and no bill is pending. But according to local polls, she has the support of 65 percent of the state’s voters as well as prominent scientists, environmentalists and such celebrities as Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Says Quimby: “Everybody loves a national park.”

Well, not quite. Gov. Angus King and all four members of the state’s congressional delegation oppose her plan. The state legislature as well as 10 of Maine’s 16 counties have signed a resolution against it. Then there are the rank and file of Maine’s struggling forestry industry, millwbrkers, lumberers and sportsmen—all of whom want Quimby to mind her beeswax. Their reasons? Primarily a fear that locking up the forest would cripple the large paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket. “One in 10 people in Piscataquis County works in one of those mills, plus considering the cutters and truckers, you realize it is a significant portion of our economy,” says John Simko, town manager of Greenville (pop. 1,800), which borders the proposed park. Locals reject the notion that a seasonal tourist industry can compensate. Says Millinocket town manager Eugene Conlogue: “We’re not interested in trading jobs that pay $20 an hour for trinket-selling jobs at $6 an hour.”

Many also argue that the park would restrict hunting, fishing and snowmobiling, some of Northern Maine’s most popular outdoor activities. But advocates say there is room to negotiate and cite a recent study showing that a new park would attract a range of businesses that would energize the region just as Yosemite and Yellowstone did theirs. Quimby is surprised by the opposition but not discouraged: “My father used to say, ‘Whoever yells the loudest is probably wrong.’ ”

Her life has been an odd amalgam of Yankee entrepreneurism and ’60s hippie-dippydom. The oldest of four children, she was born in Cambridge, Mass., to John Quimby, now 78 and a retired engineer, and his wife, Rebecca, a homemaker who died in 1986. A Harvard MBA with an inner Ralph Kramden, her father was constantly cooking up get-rich schemes. Consider his football-shaped “You Do Voodoo” dolls. “You were supposed to work voodoo and curse the other team’s luck,” says Quimby. “He sold 144—and had a million made.”

By then she’d dabbled in her own ventures. “I used to get Sweetheart soap, paint the embossing on it and sell it. I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8,” Quimby says. “I was psyched that somebody would pull money out and pay for something I made.” She and a boyfriend, George St. Clair, now 58, lived the flower-power dream, moving in his VW van to San Francisco, where she graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1975 the couple did the Thoreau thing, moving to Guilford, Maine, where they built their single-room cabin using only hand tools. They married in 1976; when twins Lucas and Hannah arrived two years later, Quimby waited tables to get by.

A couple of years after her 1983 divorce from St. Clair, Quim by stopped at a roadside stand to buy honey from Burt Shavitz, now 66, who lived alone in an 8-ft.-by-8-ft. turkey coop. Shavitz was very much a Maine character. “He had three outhouses,” Quimby says. “He had a collection of vehicles in his yard, one more derelict than the next. There was a concern that he might be dangerous.”

She was smitten. She teamed up with Shavitz and helped him collect honey from his 50 hives. She also cooked up the idea of decorating their honey-jar labels with handmade designs. Their romance fizzled, but their business, Burt’s Bees, flourished. Quimby quit slinging hash in 1987 and branched out to beeswax ornaments and shoe and furniture polish. In the early ’90s she graduated to personal-care products, which turned out to be the golden goose. In 1999 she bought out Shavitz, giving him $100,000 a year for life. “He added four feet of space to his coop and raised the roof so he has a sleeping loft,” she says affectionately. Quimby meanwhile settled into a 1,200-sq.-ft. waterfront home near Acadia National Park.

Although she has lived in the state for a quarter century, many North Mainers view her as an outsider (it doesn’t help that RESTORE is based in Concord, Mass.). “It’s our heritage they’re messing with,” says U.S. Navy veteran Ray Campbell, 64, a hunter and fisherman. Thinking more globally, Quimby believes a park will help sell conservation to a wider public, and she’s sanguine about having reconciled her two shades of green—capitalist and environmentalist. “Business success wasn’t an end for me,” she says. “It was a stepping stone back to my beginning. My ideals.”

Richard Jerome

Anne Driscoll in Bangor and Winter Harbor, Maine

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