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Roger Milliken Jr. walks through the woods wearing three hats.
As a businessman in Maine's natural resources industry, he can look at an Eastern White Pine and see the number of board feet the tree could yield and what markets the timber could serve. As a conservationist, he can look at the same tree and see a species that has been around since the ice age and deserves to live until the next. As a practicing Buddhist, he sees a fellow living being that has been rooted to the earth for 150 years, much longer than his own transient existence. "They all seem important," says Milliken, CEO of Cumberland-based Baskahegan Co., which owns 100,000 acres of timberland in northern Washington County. "I try to walk through the woods with all three perspectives in mind."
Milliken's ability to balance these multiple relationships with his surrounding world and find the common ground between apparently incongruous perspectives is one of the reasons he has ascended to one of the country's most prominent posts in the conservation world. On Dec. 1, Milliken was elected chairman of Arlington, Va.-based The Nature Conservancy, which has chapters in every state and over 30 countries.
Milliken's path to chairing one of the world's largest conservation groups can be traced back to the early 1980s when he arrived in Maine as a young, idealistic liberal arts graduate -- he studied English at Harvard University in the early 1970s and was fresh from studying Sanskrit and Buddhism at graduate school in Hawaii -- to write a history of the family timberland business his grandfather founded in1920 when he purchased 100,000 acres of timberland between Houlton and Calais. He has been an environmentalist for as long as he can remember, and arrived in Maine wary of businesses and their role in degrading the natural world.
But what he found in Maine surprised him. "It was my first experience of a sustainable business," he says, which is noteworthy since his father at the time ran Milliken & Co., which owns a textile mill in South Carolina, and in 1991 was estimated to be worth $1 billion by Fortune magazine. His father is still chairman of the company. "I was your typical liberal arts graduate from the mid-'70s who assumed business was the mortal enemy of the environment. So to see a business where that wasn't the case ... the business and kind of forestry I saw practiced, to my eyes, was a healing of the forests from past abuses. That became really clear to me when I wrote that history."
Milliken developed affection for Maine and the people he met and decided to settle here, taking the reins at the family business in 1983. He became president in 1989.
His arrival in Maine and its natural resources industry was just in time for the controversial episode in Maine's natural resources industry as debate raged between the natural resources industry and environmental and conservation groups over issues of sustainable forestry, clear-cutting and public access. Milliken, by virtue of his demeanor and a world outlook that he credits to his Buddhist teachings, stepped into the role of moderator. The negotiations he helped along resulted in the Maine Legislature's passage in 1989 of the Forest Practices Act. In a 1992 profile of Milliken in American Forests magazine, Ed Meadows, then-commissioner of Maine's Department of Conservation, credited Milliken with keeping the environmentalists and industrialists on speaking terms during the negotiations. "I found myself in the middle, so I was convening groups of traditional enemies -- the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon, the Forest Products Council, the paper industry -- to find what, were for me, pretty evident compromises. It was clear that environmental community wanted a healthy productive forest and that's what industry wanted," says Milliken, who also cofounded and chaired the Maine Forest Biodiversity Project -- a 100-plus person stakeholder process that brought together representatives from the forest industry, academic community, environmental activists, sportsmen, conservationists and small landowners to build consensus on the need to protect Maine's woods. "So I was a bridge person during that time."
At the same time, Milliken was looking for groups that shared his desire for compromise and The Nature Conservancy caught his eye. "They are business friendly, they understood the demands of business -- and they had very clear mission that they didn't deviate form. Their mission is to protect biodiversity."
In 1996, he joined the board of the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy. He co-chaired the fundraising campaign that cinched a 1998 deal to buy 185,000 acres along St. John River in northwestern Maine and a 2000 deal that protected 295,000 acres near Mount Katahdin.
The St. John River deal sent ripples throughout the conservation world at the time. "That St. John purchase was a revolutionary event for The Nature Conservancy as an organization because it was by a factor of two more than the conservancy had raised for a project," he says. "It broke the thing wide open, it introduced a scale that was new to the conservancy and chapters all over country found their own big wonderful projects to do."
The Nature Conservancy is also one of the groups that negotiated the massive $35 million conservation deal with Plum Creek Timber Co. to protect more than 340,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake region. When Milliken moved to Maine in the early 1980s he says four percent of the state was in conservation. The percentage now stands at 15%, and will increase to 17% if the Plum Creek deal is completed. "That's a huge change in terms of certainty for the future," he says.
It was because of his leadership and role in the St. John and Katahdin area conservation deals that Milliken in 2000 was asked to join The Nature Conservancy's national board. "I bring to the chair my understanding of forestry and experience of what it takes to get good conservation done on the ground, which is what I've learned here in Maine," he says.
He says the major challenge he will tackle in his new role is climate change. "When I think of the global mission of the organization, addressing climate change is the key challenge of our time."
In his 1992 profile in American Forests, Milliken told the writer he was interested in becoming more involved in forest and conservation issues on a national level. "I continue to grow in my understanding of issues and balancing of the arguments," he was quoted as saying. "I've got my radar on for engagement outside Maine."
With 16 years of hindsight, it's safe to say Milliken has succeeded in that goal.