Whose Woods These Are
A tiny land trust helps keep nature at the doorstep of quasi-urban Bath.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Map Courtesy Kennebec Estuary Land Trust/Jack Witham
Sometimes, adversity has a funny way of turning into opportunity.
That’s the lesson that the dedicated group of environmentalists who comprise the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust have learned over the past two decades. Never mind that the Androscoggin River, which flows into Merrymeeting Bay north of Bath, was once so polluted that it could melt paint off riverfront houses. Who cares that even during economic recessions, demand for new houses — and the pavement, sewer lines, and other distinctly non-natural infrastructure that come with them — remains high in midcoast Maine. Forget the seventy-eight acres of concrete and steel that constitute Bath Iron Works, located almost dead-center within the land trust’s twenty-four-mile reach. Despite such challenges, this tiny land trust has managed to preserve some 1,738 acres from Bowdoinham in the north to Georgetown in the south. Its seven nature preserves and miles of publicly accessible trails have become a cherished asset for residents of Bath and the surrounding communities. “The heavy industry that is so visible in Bath makes it all the more surprising that there is a land trust here,” remarks Alicia Heyburn, the land trust’s outreach and communication director. “[Our preserves] are small spaces that have become a big community resource.” From its humble beginnings in 1989 (it was literally formed around an Arrowsic kitchen table), the land trust has grown to include seven hundred acres of land it owns outright and another 1,038 acres to which it holds easements. This year the trust is on the verge of completing a five-mile multi-use trail within the Bath city limits, further solidifying its role as a champion of some of Maine’s most fragile, and important, natural spaces.
Ask most Mainers to tell you what the Kennebec estuary is, let alone where it is, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. This despite the fact that this particular estuary — technically that area where freshwater mixes with salt — is Maine’s largest conservation focus area of statewide significance, draining a third of the state through Merrymeeting Bay and the Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers. Twenty percent of Maine’s tidal marshes are found here. It is the largest tidal estuary north of the Hudson River and is home to five state and federally endangered or threatened species, including short-nosed sturgeon, Atlantic salmon, and roseate terns.
The presence of such critical habitat is worth protecting anywhere, but the work of the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust is especially important in the Bath area, says Warren Whitney, land trust manager with Maine Coast Heritage Trust. “It’s an incredibly important region because it is close to some of the very developed areas along the coast, places like Brunswick and Bath, and at the same time the whole Kennebec estuary is critical in terms of its flora and fauna,” Whitney says. “In places where people aren’t as exposed to natural areas, it’s very important that you have places where they can go.”
For the land trust, protecting these spaces has not happened overnight. It obtained its first easement, consisting of eighty acres and two miles of shoreline, in 1991. Other easements, on the Back River near Arrowsic and the lower Sasanoa River in Georgetown, followed in 1995. In 1999, the land trust acquired its first property, a 105-acre parcel in Georgetown, simultaneously raising $245,000 in private money to complement a $175,000 Land for Maine’s Future grant and thus purchase 96 acres of property on Thorne Head, north of Bath. This property, and the sixty-five-acre Sewall Woods preserve nearby and connected by trail, have become the land trust’s signature property. All of the trust’s properties are open to the public dawn to dusk and feature signage and parking, but no restrooms or other facilities.
Under the leadership of Executive Director Carrie Kinne and assisted by Heyburn and a part-time operations director, the land trust has shown no sign of slowing down the pace it has built up over the past few years. This fall it hopes to officially open the new Whiskeag Trail, a two-year-long project that links up five miles of trails between the Bath Area Family YMCA on Centre Street and the Thorne Head Preserve. This trail, which has been pieced together by using public lands and negotiating with a handful of private landowners, will be the longest in the Bath area. Portions of it have already proven popular with mountain bikers, bird watchers, dog walkers, and hikers. But the trust isn’t done yet; Heyburn says crews are already looking at Bath’s south side to see what trail possibilities exist there.
For residents of Bath and the surrounding communities, the work of the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust has had immediate, obvious benefits. “I probably spend an hour or so, three days a week, in the Sewall Woods and Thorne Head preserves,” says Bath resident John Swenson. He routinely sees woodpeckers, deer, and eagles during his walks in the woods, and has even come to enjoy the preserves in winter. “There is a rather nice overlook looking up toward Merrymeeting Bay, and in the winter the navigational buoys on the Kennebec get trapped under the ice and there’s this incredible groaning sound as the ice moves. It’s such a nice thing to be in a relatively urban area, and yet, with a short walk, be able to get to a natural area.”
For Swenson, the work of the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust has enhanced the life that he sought out in midcoast Maine. “When my wife and I moved up here, we were debating whether or not we wanted to live on one of the peninsulas — which of course are beautiful — or in town,” he says. “We feel like we’ve got the best of both worlds here.”
- By: Joshua F. Moore