Over the past four years, Barrett Kaiser has spent a lot of time at the airport in Bangor, Maine. It was some consolation that it reminded him of the airport in Billings.
When you travel a lot, he said, it’s nice to be in an airport where the crowds are smaller, the people are friendlier and fly rods are everywhere. The next time he visits Maine, though, it will be purely for pleasure. His work there is done.
Kaiser, who heads the Billings office of Hilltop Public Solutions, a national political consulting firm, helped a Maine family win its long quest to establish what is essentially an 87,500-acre national park in Maine’s North Woods.
On Aug. 24, the day before the centennial of the National Park Service, President Obama signed a proclamation establishing the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, to be administered by the NPS.
A story in the Washington Post said it is “likely to be the last large new national park ever established on the East Coast.”
As a hunter, angler and outspoken advocate of public land and public access, Kaiser said the win means more than anything else he’s done during 20 years in politics and consulting.
“There’s no question in my mind that this is the most significant achievement of my career,” he said.
Lucas St. Clair, who hired Kaiser to lead the campaign to put his family’s land into public hands, credits the Montana consultant’s “intense, focused organizational ability” with last week’s victory.
“He knows the dynamics of what it takes to put a winning campaign together,” St. Clair said, and Kaiser’s presence “gave everyone working on this a real sense of confidence.”
Kaiser served as communications director, speechwriter and chief spokesmen for then-U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, and later served as his Montana chief of staff. Kaiser joined Hilltop in 2010, and the Montana office is now the firm’s second largest, after its headquarters in Washington, D.C.
In Billings, Hilltop directed winning campaigns for a $122 million school bond in 2013 and a $16 million bond to build the new Billings Public Library in 2011.
Kaiser said St. Clair came to him because of their mutual friendship with Stephanie Schriock, formerly Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s campaign manager and now president of Emily’s List, which promotes the election of pro-choice female candidates.
St. Clair’s mother, Roxanne Quimby, had been pushing for many years to win national park designation of the land she had assembled in the North Woods. How she came to buy the land is a remarkable story.
Kaiser said Quimby was a student at Berkeley in the 1970s when she and her then-boyfriend, George St. Clair, moved to Maine as part of the back-to-the-land movement. They were living in a cabin with no electricity or running water when Lucas and his twin sister, Hannah, were born.
Quimby later divorced St. Clair and met Burt Shavitz, a beekeeper. She started making candles from his stores of beeswax, made good money and then began creating other products, including a popular lip balm. By 2007, when she sold her company, Burt’s Bees, to Clorox for nearly $1 billion, it was making some 200 personal-care products.
“That right there,” Kaiser said, referring to Quimby’s success, “is the United States of America.”
So was her goal of buying a huge swath of Maine wilderness and converting it into a national park, Kaiser said.
“The one thing that really attracted me to this project … was the patriotic aspect of what she wanted to do,” he said.
But there were problems. Maine is like Montana in many respects, Kaiser said, with a strong libertarian bent, a strong work ethic, marked anti-government sentiment and an aversion to outsiders.
“Here we say out of state,” Kaiser said. “There they say ‘from away.’”
And Quimby was from away, an old hippie who wanted to make a huge national park in an area once dominated by logging and pulp mills, until the internet vastly reduced the demand for paper. Mainers, as they are called, looked with mistrust and disdain on Quimby, and her hopes of getting the Maine congressional delegation to support a national park were going nowhere.
That’s why her son stepped in in 2011, and why he hired Kaiser in 2012. St. Clair said he grew up in the North Woods and “I’m a lot more like people in the region. I hunt and fish.”
So does Kaiser, St. Clair said, which helps explain why the two became “fast friends” soon after meeting. They often went fishing in Maine, made two fishing trips to the Florida Keys and fished together on the Big Hole River in Montana.
“We made a lot of good decisions in the front of a drift boat,” St. Clair said.
But when Kaiser made his first trip to Maine in 2012, he said, “I immediately realized this is what we call in the business a hot landing zone.” When he told D.C. insiders what he was working on, they’d roll their eyes and tell him he didn’t have a chance.
He said his first job was to “professionalize the whole operation.” He hired Democratic and Republican lobbyists to work in Washington, brought in a top-flight public-relations firm and enlisted the help of other organizations that promoted public lands and national parks.
He commissioned two economic studies from Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, peer-reviewed publications that said creation of a national park would create 450 to 1,000 new jobs. The campaign also used polls and focus groups, did some rebranding and encouraged people to visit the North Woods property “so the land would sell itself.”
They managed to win lots of influential support, including the endorsement of the Bangor Daily News, but ultimately they ran out of time. The family had set a goal for itself of having the land designated a national park before this year’s Park Service centennial, and when that prospect started to dim they started pushing for national monument status instead.
The president can designate national monuments under the authority of the Antiquities Act. Two of the best known in Montana—where both are run by the Bureau of Land Management, like the NPS an Interior Department agency—are Pompeys Pillar National Monument and the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument. President Bill Clinton issued proclamations for both monuments three days before leaving office in 2001.
Kaiser said so much work had been done on Katahdin Woods and Water, and public support was by then so overwhelming, that “it was like monument in a box” by the time it was presented to Obama.
It helped that the land was valued at $60 million and the family foundation put up a $20 million endowment for operations and maintenance, with a pledge to raise another $20 million.
As a monument, it will be managed just like a national park, and the designation makes it quite likely that it will one day be converted to a national park, Kaiser said.
Obama’s proclamation described it as “part of a larger landscape already conserved by public private efforts starting a century ago,” and the land donated by Quimby and her family “contains a significant piece of this extraordinary natural and cultural landscape.”
It describes an area rich in scenery, geology, flora and fauna, and strikingly beautiful night skies. Henry David Thoreau canoed there and Theodore Roosevelt summited Mount Katahdin, the highest point in Maine and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Kaiser was in Maine for the big day last week, and he was there for the prolonged celebration that followed Obama’s proclamation. Kaiser also helped to organize a visit by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
St. Clair said Jewell arrived late last Friday, headed out for the East Branch of the Penobscot River by 7 a.m. and was running rapids by 10. She also went hiking and spent the night in a tent beside the river.
Although Kaiser did get some fishing in over the years, he said he was always in Maine to work and never really relaxed and enjoyed the area.
He intends to remedy that in October, when he plans to vacation at Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument with his wife, Kari, and 4-year-old son, Rowan.