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COASTAL CRUSADERS

Photograph by Cody Barry

In August, Maine Coast Heritage Trust launched a dizzyingly ambitious campaign to address development pressures, increase access to Maine’s coast, and mitigate the impacts of climate change. As a visit to one quintessential Maine island shows, there’s plenty hinging on its success.

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In her office in Topsham, Jane Arbuckle keeps a charred scrap of paper that she plucked from a fire pit 16 years ago, a memento of an early visit to Whaleboat Island, the wild and narrow Casco Bay island just west of the Harpswell Peninsula. It’s a packing list left behind by a group of Whaleboat campers, a scrawled tally of who was tasked with toting out marshmallows, lawn chairs, beer, and other necessities. Arbuckle, who’s been the director of stewardship at Maine Coast Heritage Trust for more than 20 years, pocketed and framed the scorched note as a reminder that conserving Maine’s coastal lands and waters is about preserving habitat, viewscapes, and commercial resources, yes — but also about preserving traditions. About people.

“It just illustrates to me the use of this place,” Arbuckle explained recently, sidestepping rockweed mats while strolling Whaleboat’s granite shore. “People have histories on these lands we conserve. They’ll say, ‘We’ve had family camping trips here every summer since I was a kid,’ or, ‘We got married out there, and we always go back for our anniversary.’”

Maine Coast Heritage Trust
Maine Coast Heritage Trust
Photographs by Benjamin Williamson

Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s director of stewardship, oversees a team of 16 year-round staff, including seven regional land stewards, like Caitlin Gerber, who works with various partners and volunteers to care for the trust’s island preserves in Casco Bay.

That multi-layered commitment — to protecting islands and shoreline from development, caring for the resources found there, and providing for their responsible use — is at the heart of a bold comprehensive campaign that Maine Coast Heritage Trust launched in August. The organization aims to meet a $125 million goal by the end of 2019, making it the single largest coastal conservation effort in Maine’s history. The funds will help protect and secure public access to some of the state’s last large undeveloped coastal parcels and allow Maine Coast Heritage Trust to provide for the long-term care and management of these and more than 120 existing preserves from Kittery to Lubec. The campaign has a head of steam — so far, supporters have committed some $85 million in gifts of land, cash, and pledges, plus a new $10 million match, leaving $30 million to be raised before the trust celebrates its 50-year anniversary in 2020.

Maine Coast Heritage Trust has been no less ambitious for the last half-century — even if you don’t recognize its name, any longtime lover of the Pine Tree State is likely familiar with the organization’s handiwork. Launched in 1970, the trust helped conserve 30 islands in its first year alone. In the decades that followed, it shepherded dozens of local Maine land trusts into being, helped establish the state’s publicly funded Land for Maine’s Future program, and partnered with communities, landowners, and other organizations to build a vast network of preserves and easement-protected properties. When this magazine awarded Maine Coast Heritage Trust its Down East Environmental Award in 1991, the editors praised the group’s efforts to keep developers from spoiling not just wild and scenic coastline but also saltwater farms, working harbors, and shellfisheries — lands and waters, the magazine declared, “that are essential to the character and well-being of the state of Maine.” As of 2018, the trust has permanently protected tens of thousands of shoreline acres and more than 300 Maine islands.

Even if you don’t recognize its name, any longtime lover of the Pine Tree State is likely familiar with Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s handiwork.

The day that Arbuckle found her now-cherished checklist, she was touring Whaleboat Island with a member of the family who then owned it. They were looking to sell, and there was no guarantee that a tradition of public access would be preserved. In 2002, Maine Coast Heritage Trust purchased the island, assisted by donations from residents in surrounding communities and funding from Land for Maine’s Future. Partnerships with locals, government agencies, and other land trusts are among the organization’s calling cards, and Arbuckle and her colleagues are quick to point out theirs is not a traditional ownership model: the organization holds land in trust for the people of Maine. Today, the trust maintains three campsites on the 122-acre island, along with three info kiosks, otherwise managing the land to preserve its wilderness character.

Arbuckle made her most recent Whaleboat trip alongside Caitlin Gerber, the land steward who monitors and maintains the trust’s five island preserves in Casco Bay. Maine Coast Heritage Trust employs seven such stewards, overseeing the care of more than 80 miles of trail and 35 campsites — all free and open to the public. But that’s a fraction of their work, Gerber explained, skimming the visitor register at one of the kiosks. Her typical day might involve visiting multiple properties by boat, breaking up beach campfire rings that could impede a boat at high tide, making sure signage is in order, picking up trash, and chatting with boaters, campers, and picnickers. She’s also out to document changing landscapes: downed trees, wildlife sightings, and pervasiveness of critters like ticks and brown-tail moths. Gerber marshals volunteer efforts for trail building and cleanups, hauls trees and brush after the occasional blowdown, manages invasive plants, and makes annual site visits to 34 easement-protected properties. It’s a lot of time in the field; the morning Gerber checked in on Whaleboat, she hadn’t set foot in the Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s offices in three weeks.

When she is behind a desk, Gerber’s tasks include managing the trust’s internship program, which recruits and trains students to work with land trusts around the state. It’s just one example of how Maine Coast Heritage Trust helps support Maine’s larger network of conservation organizations. Two full-time staffers man the group’s Land Trust Program, organizing workshops and an annual conference for employees of other trusts and sharing expertise on legal matters and stewardship.

Maine Coast Heritage Trust
Photograph by Ken Woisard Photography

Shorebird feeding and roosting habitat, productive clam flats, potential for cross-country ski trails, and rocky ledges where kayakers often stop to rest: Brunswick’s Woodward Point parcel has a lot to offer. Its protection is contingent on the success of Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s comprehensive campaign

Standing on the western shore of Whaleboat, at the edge of a meadow mottled with wild blueberries and milk thistle, Arbuckle and Gerber pointed out a conspicuous splotch of bright red on the far horizon. It was the roof of an 11,000-square-foot mansion on nearby Hope Island — a place Arbuckle calls a cautionary tale. Though it’s hosted a house for over a century, wealthy private owners have spent the last two decades adding a guest house, stables, a helicopter pad, a chapel, a boathouse, and a road network to the rockbound island — 4 miles and seemingly a world away from the peace of pastoral Whaleboat.

Arbuckle gestured at the spruce-strewn island around her. “There are more and more people in Maine who never get to experience this,” she said. “I think in the past, it was very common here for people to have a camp, either on a lake or on the ocean — you didn’t have to be wealthy. And that’s not the case anymore. With newcomers, many of them don’t even realize this still exists.” She paused to watch a gray seal surface just offshore, close enough to make out the speckles on its snout. “I think we’re providing people with an incredible opportunity,” she went on. “I just hope they’ll come together to support it.”

Maine Coast Heritage TrustThe efforts of stewards like Gerber require money and resources, and among the campaign’s goals is to endow care of the trust’s preserves in perpetuity. Fuel and maintenance costs for boats alone can be onerous. Gerber shares her 19-foot aluminum skiff with the midcoast steward, an arrangement that requires complex logistics and scheduling. A successful comprehensive campaign could provide for a new boat.

It could also provide her with a new preserve to tend to. Among the dozens of projects the trust has underway is a partnership with the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust to conserve one of the southern Maine coast’s last undeveloped mainland tracts, 84 acres of woods and meadowlands at Woodward Point, with 2 miles of shoreline on the New Meadows River. In Milbridge, meanwhile, Maine Coast Heritage Trust is partnered with a local nonprofit to establish a village green space and community garden complex. In Owls Head, the trust is working with the town to create a waterfront park and a hand-carry boat launch to access newly conserved Monroe Island. Throughout the state, the organization’s Marshes for Tomorrow Initiative aims to mitigate the effects of rising seas by saving and restoring threatened salt marshes.

At the press conference kicking off the campaign, Maine Coast Heritage Trust president Tim Glidden sounded an alarm bell about both climate change and increased development pressure from a wave of retiring baby boomers looking to the coast. “Maine’s lands and waters are the lifeblood of our coastal communities,” he said, “and they’re threatened by forces never before seen in Maine’s history.”

Help Support a Healthy Maine Coast

"This campaign is about shaping the future of the Maine coast we know and love in the wake of impending change, and that’s something all who love this place can get behind,” Maine Coast Heritage Trust president Tim Glidden recently said. “It’s going to take gifts of $25 and $25,000 and $250,000 and everything in between. Every dollar, every voice of support, every hour spent volunteering truly does count.”

LEARN MORE — mcht.org/campaign

Maine Coast Heritage Trust