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Transforming Katahdin: The Life's Work of Roxanne Quimby

View up from the ground towards a canopy of trees
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument
Shutterstock / Zack Frank

A girl with a dream becomes a woman with a vision. And Roxanne Quimby’s vision was to establish a national park site to preserve the natural landscape and resources of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. A lifelong environmentalist and proud Mainer, the world knows Roxanne for her work with the eco-friendly personal care line Burt’s Bees, and as a longtime supporter of national parks.

Roxanne Quimby (Quimby Family Foundation)

As her life led her from living in a remote cabin in Maine’s woods to transforming Burt’s Bees from a modest nature-based business to a household name, Roxanne’s passion for conservation grew and she slowly began acquiring land in northern Maine, piece by piece, with the goal of having the acreage designated as a national park. She focused on the area around Mount Katahdin, known for being the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and the place where many hikers experience the relief and joy of meeting a life goal.

Roxanne recognized the controversial nature of the park to her fellow Mainers. A former powerhouse for paper production, many locals feared this park was another hit to their eroding industry. Believing it was possible to ensure the economic strength of the community for the future, while also honoring the economic history of the paper mills, Roxanne enlisted the help of her son Lucas St. Clair to have thoughtful conversations with the most impacted residents of the area. By truly listening to the thoughts and opinions of the community, Lucas was able to bring locals along with Roxanne’s vision.

Growing up, one of the things that I loved about the national parks was that there were no barriers to anyone … Everyone was welcome, and to me, that was a real symbol of democracy and what this country meant to our family, and what this country means to everyone. So, the national parks became very important to me, and when I had the opportunity to give back to this country, for basically providing a home for our family, the national parks were my choice.
Roxanne Quimby

Ultimately, the Quimby family donated 87,500 acres of land and pledged a $20 million endowment to support park operations and construction in the early years of the park’s existence.

The National Park Foundation worked with Roxanne to establish the park by facilitating the transfer of land to the National Park Service. NPF also helped launch the Friends of Katahdin Woods & Waters organization, which works to protect and preserve the site, as well as coordinate educational experiences, manage administrative facilities, and more.

On August 24, 2016, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, President Barack Obama officially designated Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument as the 413th site within the National Park System. For decades, the Katahdin region has attracted outdoorspeople for its water, views, trails, mountains, night sky, wildlife, and historical and cultural resources. Thanks to the hard work, passion, and generous gifts of the Quimby family, these treasures will be protected forever.

National parks are really an opportunity to unify the public and unify Americans to appreciate the beauty, the heritage, the monuments, and all that we have been able to protect through the parks.
Roxanne Quimby

Since the monument’s designation, Roxanne’s philanthropy work continues, as she continues to partner with the Friends of Katahdin Woods & Waters to develop a visitor’s center and additional park programming. Katahdin continues to operate by Roxanne’s intention to involve the community and preserve the natural landscape, thanks to the programs sustained by her generous gifts.

A true steward of the land, it was always Roxanne’s intention to honor the indigenous population on whose ancestral land Katahdin stood. Today, the park interprets Wabanaki history and culture to visitors. NPF has supported the Wabanaki Youth in Science Ancestral Lands Crew to provide educational experiences for Maine’s first Ancestral Lands Trail Crew at the monument. Over the course of ten weeks, a group of Wabanaki youth learned about trail building and their cultural connections to Katahdin and the surrounding landscapes.

Providing young people the opportunity to access the park is also a priority. In 2020, Friends of Katahdin Woods & Waters coordinated educational experiences for more than 2,500 students through learning journeys and classroom visits, growing the program 120% compared to the previous year, despite challenges surfaced by COVID-19. The park has also hosted an AmeriCorps VISTA participant to assist with strategic planning, youth programming, and more.

A forest floor with narrow, tall trees reaching up to the sunlight
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (Shutterstock / Zack Frank)

In May 2020, Katahdin became an official “International Dark Sky Sanctuary” designated by the International Dark Sky Association, meaning the park was recognized for providing dark sky programs for visitors and has responsible lighting policies that preserve the night sky. NPS hosted two public events over the summer to share these breathtaking night skies with the local community.

Local communities can also connect with Katahdin through the Katahdin Learning Project, a place-based learning program offering programs that foster connections between learners and land in Katahdin. Since its founding by local teachers and NPS staff in 2016, the Katahdin Learning Project has engaged over 6,700 students from Maine through more than 330 programs.

Not only does Roxanne’s contribution support programs within the park, the endowment has made possible building the creation, maintenance and advancement of park infrastructure, including managing the Patten House and Millinocket Visitor Centers, making road improvements to the main Loop Road, procuring tractor and equipment for the park, and creating maps and brochures for visitors.

Roxanne’s story is one of a woman with the foresight and resources to step up and do the hard work to transform woods and waters into preserved places for future generations. The designation of Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument is a testament to the power of private philanthropy and the true enthusiasm it can inspire.