Saving Hog Island
Under threat, a world-famous conservation school reboots.
- By: Colin Woodard
- Photography by: Jennifer Baum
Under normal circumstances, mere mortals aren’t allowed ashore on most of Maine’s seabird nesting islands, much less are they invited to take part in conservation programs to benefit the gulls, terns, and puffins that live there. You need special permits to visit most of these colonies, and unless you’re a trained ornithologist or working with one, you’re unlikely to be granted them.
Only this spring, a lucky group of birders will get to experience this opportunity, and in the company of some of the nation’s leading bird scientists. Thirty amateur naturalists will spend a week in late May working with the father of puffin restoration in Maine, Dr. Stephen Kress, to survey the seabird population of Ross Island and perhaps Franklin Island in Muscongus Bay. A second team will go ashore after Labor Day on Eastern Egg Rock — legendary for its puffins — to help National Audubon Society scientists clear vegetation that’s troubling the endangered roseate terns that also nest there.
“That’s something you don’t get to do very often: real science in the company of some of the top experts in the world,” says Laura Sebastianelli, who is coordinating the two sessions for Exploritas, the educational travel group until recently known as Elderhostel.
The sessions — and three other ornithological programs — are being staged from the legendary Hog Island Audubon camp, which is reopening after a yearlong hiatus. Birders have been coming to the island, a few hundred yards off the Bremen shore, for seventy-two of the past seventy-four seasons, drawn by the opportunity to immerse themselves in its ecosystem in the company of extremely knowledgeable teachers.
They’ve eaten, slept, and studied amid the mature fir and spruce forests of the 330-acre island, with boat excursions among the bird colonies of outer Muscongus Bay’s many storm-battered nesting islands. Along the way, not a few have reported experiencing a “natural history epiphany” that forever changed the way they look at their place in the world.
“Once you spend a week on that island, it can be a life changing experience,” says Judy Braus, senior vice president for education at National Audubon in Washington, which has owned the island since 1936. “You interact with other participants and this ecologically diverse place, and I’ve seen people come with one set of values and expectations and in one week have changed them.”
But this year’s programs — which include a session for teens — have a lot on the line. The camp, which has been managed by Maine Audubon for the past decade, was closed last season because the Falmouth-based organization could no longer bear its all-too-frequent operating shortfalls. Myriad stakeholders have been at work to craft a viable model, but it’s not yet certain whether the birding programs are on the verge of a glorious new chapter, or experiencing their last hurrah.
The loss of Hog Island’s bird program would likely close the book on one of the country’s most storied and venerable nature camps. Its birth predates the modern environmental movement by the better part of a century, to a time when few Americans had much sympathy for nature and even fewer realized that it was being undone by the excesses of the industrial age. Two who did see the direction things were going were Amherst College astronomer David Todd and his wife, Mabel Loomis Todd, remembered for her posthumous editing of her friend Emily Dickinson’s poetry and for the very public and passionate affair she had with the poet’s married brother, Austin. Like many comfortable visitors after them, the Todds discovered the beauty of the Maine coast while cruising on their yacht, and in 1908 fell in love with Hog Island and its mature spruce and balsam forests. On their walks, they were horrified to come across a forty-acre clear-cut — where “piles of dead brush and stumps gave . . . an air of desolation” — and even more so to learn the rest of the island would soon see the ax.
The Todds managed to save the island the old fashioned way: by buying most of it and leaving it to the animals. They built two small cottages in the forest and returned every summer, introducing their daughter to the natural world. There, Mrs. Todd edited her final edition of the Letters of Emily Dickinson and, in October 1934, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, was determined to protect in perpetuity her beloved island from exploitation.
The result, after trials and tribulations, was the creation of National Audubon’s first nature camp. “It would be an ideal field station for biological research,” Millicent Bingham explained at the time. A friend of hers had purchased and donated to Audubon the only parcel she did not own: thirty acres on the northern end on which stood a summer inn complex that had not survived the Great Depression. “Why not make the buildings a camp for students of nature? They could use the rest of the island as a laboratory.” Starting in 1936, groups of teachers and other adult students began coming in groups of fifty for two-week sessions on the island. They continued doing so, interrupted only once during World War II, until the fall of 2008.
The instructors were legendary. Roger Tory Peterson, author of the Peterson Field Guides and one of the founding figures of the environmental movement, was the camp’s director in the 1940s. Allan Cruickshank, the pioneer of bird photography instructed at the same time. (Life magazine carried a photograph of him at the top of a hundred-foot tree shooting close-ups of osprey chicks in their nest.) Rachel Carson visited in 1960 and mentioned it in Silent Spring. Kress, who brought the first puffins back to Maine from Newfoundland in a specially designed suitcase, was director in the early 1980s, while Kenn Kaufman (of Kaufman Field Guide fame) teaches there still.
But for all the camp’s educational successes, finances were another matter. Maintaining the various buildings on the island could be costly, but the program paid for itself almost entirely through tuition receipts. Maine Audubon, which took over responsibility for the camp in the year 2000, found it difficult to keep covering costs when enrollments didn’t match expectations. “From year to year we didn’t break even and as the recession began to rear its scary head, we needed to protect ourselves against further losses,” says Maine Audubon’s executive director, Ted Koffman. In late 2008, the organization pulled the plug on the camp and began negotiations with National Audubon and other prospective partners to find another way forward.
“We wanted to see if we could give up the responsibility for the buildings and instead find a partner organization that would have a strong interest in programs that were within the scope and intentions of the original donors of the land,” Koffman adds. Those negotiations are ongoing, but have included Camp Kieve-Wavus in nearby Nobleboro, which has been helping maintain infrastructure and will be bringing its campers to the island this summer on environmental education day excursions.
“Our goal is to continue the legacy of all the programs in some way while exploring options for ways to move forward,” says Braus of National Audubon, who notes that camp programs that lack endowments have had a rough go of it in recent years. “It’s important to reconnect young people and families with nature, which is harder and harder to do these days.”
Meanwhile, Kress, a Cornell University professor who heads National Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, has been spearheading the reboot of the birding programs. “When I think about it, we are really running an ecotourism hotel there,” he says. “Here we are a bunch of biologists trying to run a pretty complicated business. Many of us have grown into it and learned how to do it, but we don’t necessarily have the professional background.”
That’s why Kress has brought in one of his Cornell colleagues, J. Bruce Tracey, who teaches at the School of Hotel Administration, and sees the situation as an ideal opportunity for some of his students to practice what they’ve been taught. “Hopefully we can enhance Hog Island and its management in very salient ways, from marketing to operations,” Tracey says. “These are students who have passion and interest in environmental causes and wanted to bring that passion to bear in an applied project. . . . They get a ton out of it.”
Partnering with Exploritas for two of this season’s sessions has allowed Hog Island to tap that organization’s well-developed marketing presence and following. The Colorado-based American Birding Association is playing a similar role for the teen session, even providing scholarships to cover the cost of some students’ attendance. “In my view, this is all about partnerships with others who have a common mission,” Kress says. “I keep my ears open all the time for others.”
Clearly, a lot depends on how well this season goes. “If the income is reasonable and the enrollments are good, the traditional programs could continue to work,” says Koffman. “We’re happy to anticipate that Hog Isand will be a very busy educational center, with some offerings similar to those in the past and some new.” With some sessions sold out at press time, the camp’s prospects are looking up.
- By: Colin Woodard
- Photography by: Jennifer Baum