State of the Parks
After three-quarters of a century of preserving Maine’s most scenic places, the state park system is still learning that it can’
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Photograph Courtesy Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands
Christine Anderson-Morehouse had a secret. After moving to Lincolnville in 1998, the avid trail-runner had discovered a rough set of trails that snaked through the land behind her house. They wound through commercial blueberry barrens and the rocky fields of Cameron Mountain, less than a mile from the edge of Camden Hills State Park. Anderson-Morehouse rarely encountered a soul on her thrice-weekly jogs across private, but unposted, land. When she moved a few miles up the road to Northport six years later, she so valued her almost private training ground that she would drive down the coast to access it.
But last spring, she discovered that her secret had suddenly, and dramatically, been discovered. The 235-acre property she frequented had been purchased by the Nature Conservancy, which had then transferred ownership to the 5,710-acre state park. Within months, what Anderson-Morehouse knew as a rough path that negotiated a steep hillside had turned into the beginnings of a broad multiuse trail — with the cut trees, severed root systems, and mountains of brush piled on top of rock walls to prove it.
“I left a message for [Park Manager Bill Elliot],” Anderson-Morehouse says, “and within a day or two he got back to me and said that they were going to be continuing the trail as a multiuse road, so that it would be a loop [with an existing multiuse road].” That the park manager had opted to make such radical changes and with no public input surprised her. “I had offered to do a walk and show some of the resources to the park folks, if there were ever any interest, because in my mind it could be helpful, if I were managing an area, to meet with the people who had familiarity with it. But [Elliot] never called.”
Eventually, the construction on Cameron Mountain caught the attention of more than just Anderson-Morehouse. The Lincolnville Conservation Commission and other locals persuaded the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL), which oversees all of Maine’s forty-eight state parks, historic sites, and scenic waterways, to take another look at the trail widening, loop proposal, and the route that Elliot had chosen. The BPL insists it consulted the Department of Environmental Protection and was told there were no specific requirements or permits needed for expanding the trail. But after a walk-through of the site, the state decided to stop work for now, to allow planners to find a route that avoids the steep terrain which had been local users’ chief concern.
More than just a clash over a single trail, the conflict on Cameron Mountain brings to light concerns with the way all of Maine’s state parks are established, developed, and managed. Even as park managers seek to balance their own budgets by increasing the number of visitors — “We’re going to grow our way out [of financial shortfalls], instead of cut our way out,” declares Will Harris, director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands — they are discovering the challenge of balancing recreation with conservation. Without individual management plans to guide each state park, managers and regional offices are often left to their own devices to determine what changes are necessary, how they should be implemented, and whether the public should be consulted beforehand.
“One of our missions is conserving these places and stewarding them,” BPL’s Harris says. “People want to know that we’re not going to damage the land, that we’re not going to pave over paradise. But people also support what they use, and if people have good memories of their state parks, they’ll support them. If folks don’t value what we do, we’ll go right over the transom.”
Funding those good memories isn’t cheap. Last year BPL received an appropriation from the state’s General Fund of $6,807,644, which is practically the same amount it has received each year since 2001. (Harris says about $3 million of that amount is repaid through fees paid by the more than 2 million people who use the parks each year.) BPL also receives 60 percent of funds generated by the loon license plate — around $425,000 last year — and about six hundred thousand dollars in royalties from an aquifer it shares with Poland Spring at Range Ponds State Park. Several recent capital improvement projects were funded by a $7.5 million bond passed in 2007, and Harris credits support groups like the Friends of Maine State Parks with helping to raise money for other projects at specific parks.
And yet even those funds are not enough. This year the state decided to turn the operation of Peacock Beach State Park over to the town of Richmond, saying that the few thousand visitors there could no longer support a state-paid staff. Likewise Scarborough Beach State Park, which has been privately operated since its purchase by the state in 1999, will continue to be run by Black Point Resource Management, LLC. Unlike other states that have seen park hours reduced or closed parks altogether, Maine has so far relied on such creative arrangements to stay afloat. “We have kept the parks open, but we’re at the point now where significant cuts in budget will mean significant cuts in operations,” Harris declares.
That’s why it came as a surprise this year when the state announced that it was actually adding a state park for the first time in twenty-five years. The Androscoggin Riverlands State Park represents the culmination of twenty years’ worth of land acquisitions from Lewiston-Auburn in the south to Leeds and Turner in the north and includes about eight miles of river frontage. Harris says after the last piece, a 326-acre parcel at Turner Cove, was acquired in 2007, there arose “a groundswell of support and desire to do something with the property,” which sits within an hour’s drive of about 50 percent of the state’s population. A year-long public hearing process resulted in a 105-page management plan that calls for the limited development of trails (including some for ATVs), a boat launch, and other facilities in the 2,588-acre park. Within five years, planners hope to have a biking and walking connection between the park and downtown Lewiston/Auburn. There will also be a limited paid staff.
“The Riverlands offers an experience that you would only expect to get an hour or an hour and a half north of here,” declares Jonathan LaBonté, executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust. He says that during the past five years, the land trust brought together the surrounding communities to develop a “common vision” for the properties they now shared (the first parcels were purchased with a Land for Maine’s Future grant back in 1990). That vision eventually led them to approach the state about creating Riverlands. “We approached the state and said that it was time to more actively manage this land as a state park,” LaBonté remarks.
Harris says the most surprising thing about Riverlands’ development as a park is the way the public process changed the state’s initial plans. “We went in there thinking that we’d do bathhouses, but that’s not what people wanted,” he says. “They wanted trails and river access, but they didn’t want to develop it too much.” Though a few trails will be multiuse, most at the new park will be dedicated for a particular user group in order to keep conflicts to a minimum. “It’s much more effective to direct a use than to pull the plug on a traditional use,” Harris remarks.
Even with such concessions, not everyone is pleased with Riverlands’ new status. “I’m devastated,” declares Emile Bergeron, a seventy-two-year-old Registered Maine Guide who has hunted on the new state park property for decades. “I think they’re ruining a fabulous piece of land to make another state park that we really didn’t need. The state already owned the land and wasn’t in danger of losing it. And the state that claims they have no money hired a consulting firm to put in bathrooms and picnic tables.” (The Portland-based landscape architect firm of Mohr & Seredin was used as consultants during the process.) He cites the closure of several trails to ATVs as examples of ignoring hunters’ longtime use of the area and believes such restrictions will grow over the years.
Brian Alexander, president of the Central Maine Chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, says the closure of some existing Riverlands trails to bicycles has been accepted, if not appreciated, by most local mountain bikers. “The majority of the bikers accept that this is the way it’s going to be, but there is a minority who are still upset that they cannot use the trails that they always have,” he says. But he believes that only by participating in the management plan’s creation have bikers been able to secure even this amount of access. “It was a good thing that we did come [to the meetings] because they wanted to close the few mountain bike trails that were there and put us on ATV trails,” he says. “They ended up giving us some of the trails and keeping us off some of the trails.”
The public process that led to Riverlands’ creation has already spread to other new park plans, including the proposed four-mile corridor linking Bradbury Mountain State Park with the Pineland Public Land Unit. Over the past few months, the state has begun holding public meetings to discuss how best to manage the multiuse trails that will eventually connect the two parcels through a Central Maine Power Co. corridor. Bradbury Mountain is already heavily used by mountain bikers — Alexander says in 2007 the park saw 33,000 mountain bikers compared to 50,000 hikers — and the state has reached out to bikers to make sure their concerns are heard as a management plan is developed. BPL has also reached out to birders who use the park, including Derek Lovitch, who owns Freeport Wild Bird Supply. “I received a letter saying that there was going to be a meeting regarding the corridor [between Bradbury and Pineland], and I realized that wildlife watching would not get its full due unless someone showed up to the meetings,” he says. “Sure, they have an idea of what they want to do and what needs to be done, but they’ve given us lots of opportunity to comment.”
As laudable as the public processes have been and the management plans that have resulted at places like Riverlands and Bradbury Mountain, it’s all the more surprising that there are not similar plans at every state park. While there is no national “best practices” standard for state park systems, many states have adopted individual management plans for each of their state parks, says Philip K. McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors. He served as head of the parks system in North Carolina for fifteen years and oversaw the creation of such plans for each of the state’s thirty-four parks during that time.
The plans break down each park by its geologic, biologic, archaeologic, scenic, and recreational importance, and require planners to solicit input from experts in each of these subject areas when considering any developments. “Superintendents were kind of flying blind, so to speak, without good scientific information, and we felt they needed good information about how to manage particular resources,” McKnelly says.
Maine has no such criteria. The state’s Integrated Resource Policy, adopted ten years ago to govern the management of the state’s public lands, states the objective of having a ten-year management plan for every distinct parcel the state owns, Harris says the only management plans mandated by statute (and likewise the only ones completed) are for the public reserved lands. “It would be a nice thing to have [for state parks],” Harris remarks. “But it’s one of those things that is pretty resource-intensive. It would be neat if we could have a larger planning section to do these things, but unfortunately it’s gone the other way; through reductions we’ve actually lost some of the positions in the planning division.” He admits that a regimented approach such as North Carolina’s might have prevented a significant environmental group like the Nature Conservancy from being left out of the planning process for Riverlands. (Harris attributes that oversight to miscommunication; the Androscoggin Land Trust’s Jonathan LaBonté says the initial park planners intentionally chose to include only local users and conservation groups in their deliberations.)
One project where more public involvement, perhaps through a management plan, might have prevented an embarrassment was at Popham Beach State Park. Last spring, BPL spent $1.4 million to build a new bathhouse at the western edge of the parking lot at Maine’s busiest day-use park. It was sited to comply with all appropriate shoreland zoning requirements. But when the Morse River broke through a sandbar and rapidly eroded a large portion of the beach, the state’s prized lavatory suddenly was on the brink of sliding into the ocean.
The state proposed to dredge the river in order to reroute it and save the bathhouse, a plan rejected by many neighbors (though some homeowners did endorse the idea). In the end, Mother Nature saved the day by rerouting the river away from the bathhouse before any significant human interference was necessary. Still, the temporary crisis was a wakeup call for planners to think not just about ordinances and setbacks, but also climate change and dynamic natural resources like Popham Beach. Barbara Vickery, director of conservation programs at the Nature Conservancy, works with the state’s climate change stakeholder group and the Coastal Program of the State Planning Office. She says she was surprised that the state didn’t do more on-the-ground research before building the new bathhouse. “I will confess that the state hadn’t thought ahead a little further when they found themselves having invested a lot of money,” she remarks.
Other Phippsburg locals are more blunt. “When they were designing the bathrooms and siting them I certainly wish they had contacted us, since everyone I know arrived at the beach and said, ‘What are they doing on that side of the parking lot?’ ” declares Laura Sewall, director of the neighboring Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area. “I mean, it’s a dune there!” Sewall says she and many other locals also wonder why the state chose to spend its money on a bathhouse instead of a bicycle lane from Bath, a project that might have helped alleviate the parking congestion that Popham visitors experience on busy summer days.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the experiences at Popham, Camden, and Riverlands, it’s that a go-it-alone approach no longer works when it comes to creating, developing, and managing Maine’s state parks. “In the early days, right up through [the creation of] Swan Lake, engineers would create a plan and then execute it,” Harris says. “Riverlands was different — we said, ‘What do you want us to do with it?’ For parks that are going to be part of a community, we need to make sure it works for them.” With several undeveloped park properties already under state ownership, including a 1,200-acre parcel on Branch Lake near Ellsworth and another near Beddington, finding the best way forward could soon become a pressing issue.
“The state has quite a number of undeveloped state parks, and I wonder about the plan for those,” says the Nature Conservancy’s Barbara Vickery. “We have no idea what their plans are, and that makes us a tiny bit nervous. Not because I don’t trust the state parks people, but because I could imagine a legislature deciding to sell unit X or Y because they could say, ‘Well, it doesn’t even have a parking lot, it has almost no visitorship.’
“That makes us very nervous.”
- By: Joshua F. Moore