Queen Bee: Roxanne Quimby, Burt’s Bees, and Her Quest for a New National Park

Queen Bee: Roxanne Quimby, Burt’s Bees, and Her Quest for a New National Park

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Over the last 35 years, Phyllis Austin has earned a well-deserved reputation as Maine’s premier journalist covering forestry and environmental issues. In 2008, she published her first major book, Wilderness Partners, which traced the career of Buzz Caverly, the long-time director of Baxter State Park and a resolute defender of Governor Baxter’s admonition that the park be kept “forever wild.” Now, in Queen Bee, Austin has brought her customary diligence, persistence, and fair-mindedness to the life and work of another wilderness champion, Roxanne Quimby, founder of the enormously successful Burt’s Bees company and philanthropist intent on using her many millions of dollars to establish a national park in Maine.

The first 240 pages of Queen Bee are devoted to Quimby’s personal history and the story of how she built Burt’s Bees from a kitchen stove operation making beeswax candles to a multi-million-dollar personal-care products company. Born in 1950 to a middle-class family, Quimby started out on the path her family expected her to take – a college education leading to a secure economic future. But she soon abandoned that path for a more freewheeling life in the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dropping out of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1970, she went to San Francisco with fellow UMass student George St. Clair. The couple scraped by with menial jobs while Quimby, who had proclaimed as a little girl that she was going to be an artist, studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute.

In 1975, unable to sell her paintings and drawings and wearied of city life, Quimby had no trouble convincing St. Clair that they, like many of their contemporaries, should go back to the land. They found an affordable homestead site in Guilford, Maine, built a cabin, married in 1976, had twins in 1978, and lived the hardscrabble life of back-to-the-landers with no plumbing, electricity, or central heating and only minimal income from catch-as-catch-can jobs. Quimby continued to work at her painting, but no more successful at selling her art in Maine than she had been in San Francisco, she abandoned it.

In 1984, Quimby met Burt Shavitz and soon began working with him tending his bees. Shavitz suggested she try making candles from some 200 pounds of beeswax he had stored in a friend’s barn. Quimby saw right away that beeswax was a raw material she could turn into not just candles but also other value added products. And instead of selling honey in gallon containers, she discovered she could make far more money by packaging it in small attractive jars as a gift item. Burts’s Bees was born. The rest is indeed history.

In the final third of the book, Austin recounts Quimby’s efforts, beginning in the year 2000, to create a national park. In this unfamiliar enterprise, Quimby was no longer a businesswoman intuiting her potential customers’ desires and then devising products to fulfill those desires – skills at which she proved brilliant in leading Burt’s Bees. Instead, she had to take on the role of a benefactor eager to give people something many of them did not want; she had to be a diplomat, changing the minds of people who had always been able to hunt and run snowmobiles and ATVs just about anywhere they liked in Maine’s vast, privately owned timberlands and who have fiercely resisted any park or reserve that would cut off that kind of unrestricted use. Never hugely successful in her new role, Quimby turned over this public relations campaign to her son, Lucas St. Clair, in 2012. As a Maine native, fishing guide, hunter, and snowmobilier, as well as a personable negotiator, St. Clair has been able to win considerable support for a national park and national multi-use recreation area adjoining the eastern border of Baxter State Park on lands (more than 120,000 acres) that Quimby has already bought for that purpose. Still, powerful opposition remains.

Creating a national park has almost always been a struggle, often lasting many years; the effort to create one in Maine has been no exception. The future of the proposed park remains unclear, but as this carefully researched and engaging book makes clear, nobody should count Roxanne Quimby out.

(Full disclosure note: Phyllis Austin is a friend of mine with whom Dean Bennett and I collaborated on editing On Wilderness: Voices from Maine. I have been advocating for large-scale wilderness protection in Maine for many years.)

Robert Kimber