Getting to Know Foes

21 05 2008

An interesting story from the Kennebec Journal

Roxanne Quimby used to be my enemy.
And when she reached out to me to find common ground, I did not want to like her.

This story deserves to be told because there are many lessons in it.

Quimby built her company, Burt’s Bees, from the beehive up and sold it for a lot of money, some of which she spent buying property in the North Woods east of Baxter Park. She won the ire of most sportsmen when she placed her land in a sanctuary, banning motorized access, hunting and trapping.

“Ban Roxanne” bumper stickers proliferated in the Millinocket region. I said a lot of nasty things about Roxanne. And then one day, she called me at home.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hi, this is Roxanne Quimby,” she said.

“Oh, sure. Who is this really?” I said.

Well, it really was Roxanne. We talked for a half-hour, mostly about personal things, including children.

After hanging up, I told my wife, Linda, that I was very surprised, not just by the call but by the fact I enjoyed the conversation.

Was it possible that I might like this woman?

Well, when Roxanne accepted my request to speak at the first Conservation and Recreation Forum last week in Augusta, she correctly described us as friends. Who would have thunk it?

The forum consists of groups representing sportsmen, environmentalists and landowners. A recommendation of the Governor’s Task Force on Access to Public Lands, the forum is designed to give the leaders of these groups a chance — at least three times a year — to discuss and resolve their conflicts and issues.

Talking is good, even when it involves your opponents, something I’ve been late to discover but have now embraced.

At last week’s forum, Roxanne spoke about why she reached out to her adversaries two years ago and what she learned from that effort, which resulted in a very favorable land swap benefitting sportsmen and the people of the Millinocket region. Among other advances, Roxanne is allowing walk-in hunting on some of her properties and has secured a vital north-to-south snowmobile trail.

I was among the adversaries who began meeting and talking with Roxanne, along with Bob Myers of the Maine Snowmobile Association, Sangerville Republican Sen. Paul Davis, Milli-nocket Town Manager Gene Conlogue and other leaders from that area.

After her talk, Bob, Gene and I offered our thoughts about what we’d learned from this experience. Here’s what I said:

* First, when opening up a dialogue with opponents, focus on common interests, from children to travel, and talk about them often. Karen Woodsum of Sierra Club and I used to be fierce opponents. Then we discovered we both enjoy fly-fishing and bird watching. That was enough to redefine our relationship as friendly.

* Second, go into these conversations without your traditional interests and biases. An open mind is essential.

* Third, be imaginative, find some positive change you can both champion, rather than defending the status quo. If your only goal is to stop or defeat something, you are doing a disservice to yourself and the members of your organization.

* Fourth, and perhaps most important, set aside your assumptions about your opponents — and learn more about them and their interests and needs. Most likely, you will find a lot of common ground on which to build a better relationship.

* Finally, recognize that compromise is hard. It’s very hard for me. And it’s even harder to sell to the community of sportsmen I work for as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

Our conversations with Roxanne continue — as they must — because if you stop talking, it’s easy to drift back to opposing corners.

We’re exploring management plans for Roxanne’s land. She’s got me researching federal parks and recreation areas. I’m talking to her about the benefits of state ownership and management. I am particularly fascinated by her antipathy to handing the job over to the state, with which she has not had a particularly good relationship. Maybe they need to talk more.

The Nature Conservancy’s Bruce Kidman summed up his take on lessons learned by reminding us that only honest dialogue can build the trust that’s necessary to a good relationship.

Roxanne from the get-go was very frank and honest about what she wanted to achieve with her land and I was very clear about my goals and interests.

It still amazes me that we were able to move so far beyond the bitterness and disappointment of our earlier relationship to a place where I look forward to our conversations and meetings.

My “Ban Roxanne” bumper sticker is off the Jeep.

George Smith is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. He lives in Mount Vernon and can be reached at




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