Could Cobscook Bay Be the Next Mount Desert Island?
In Lubec, a new network of waterfront parks is the latest project by a global philanthropic foundation with an increasingly large Maine footprint — and an unconventional approach to conservation.
By Brian Kevin | Photographed by Chris Shane
The first time Gilbert Butler saw kayakers running a wild river, he was a young man visiting Maine. Even then, he was a capable outdoorsperson, fond of hiking and canoeing around his family home of Utica, New York, a budding alpinist with the ski and mountaineering club at his Boston-area prep school. His mother, who came from a prosperous New York political family, owned a home at the mouth of Somes Sound on Mount Desert Island, in Northeast Harbor. Staying there one summer, Butler made an outing to the neighboring Blue Hill peninsula, where he visited the reversing Blue Hill Falls and watched men in low, narrow boats ride the tidal currents that flood and then drain the adjacent salt pond. Their bows pierced the water like spearheads as sun sparkled off riffles on either side of a rainbow-arch bridge.
“I want one of those,” Butler said to himself, “and I want to do that.”
Butler told me this last September, over a lunch of salad and salmon on a screened porch at Red Point Park, in Lubec, the headquarters of an impressive new system of 11 parklands scattered along the rockbound southern shores of Cobscook Bay. Cobscook Shores, as the park system will be known, was created by the nonprofit Butler Conservation Fund, board members and staff from which had gathered in Lubec to tour and discuss the future of the roughly 500 acres and 13½ miles of shorefront that the organization had been quietly acquiring since 2016.
Butler is now 83 and has paddled kayaks all over the world. A nearly five-decade career in high finance, including as a trailblazer in private equity, has afforded him opportunities to indulge his adventurous streak. Since 2005, when he curtailed the operations of his firm, he has devoted most of his time to environmental philanthropy, traveling widely to evaluate and shepherd conservation projects in some of the world’s most exquisite landscapes: the mountains of Patagonia, the savannas of Mozambique, the temperate rain forests of British Columbia. And yet, since adolescence, he has spent at least a portion of every summer in Maine, venturing out from Northeast Harbor to explore the state’s woolier corners — particularly, its rivers and coastal waters.
It was on such an excursion some 30 years ago that Butler fell in love with Cobscook Bay, a wildlife-rich estuary as far Down East as it gets, with a mazy etch-a-sketch of a shoreline, 24-foot tides that leave a third of the bay exposed at low ebb, and shockingly little development compared to the rest of Maine’s coast. For many years, Butler supported conservation there by doing what most eco-minded multimillionaires do, writing checks to fund projects by groups like the Downeast Coastal Conservancy and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. He still does this. But in the early 2010s, to hear several of his colleagues tell it, the Butler Conservation Fund adopted a sudden and significant new approach. Rather than simply making grants to land trusts and environmental groups, BCF began buying up land on its own, in Maine and elsewhere, then installing recreational infrastructure — trails, boardwalks, gazebos, boat launches — with a fervor and a budget that are all but unique among conservation organizations.
When Cobscook Shores formally opens next summer (on the heels of a “soft opening” this August, geared towards locals), BCF’s director of conservation infrastructure projects, Carl Carlson, says the network of parks will represent a roughly $11 million investment in and around Lubec.
So why here, at the edge of Maine? Because, for one, the ecosystem is healthy, Carlson says. And because BCF’s board believes the region has untapped tourism potential and will benefit from extra traffic. But to a large degree, it is simply because Butler loves paddling a kayak here, and because the bulk of the decision-making at BCF — from where to invest to how to site a trail to what sort of furniture adorns the visitor center — derives from the tastes and proclivities of its dynamic, uncompromising founder.
“To find another coast like this, you have to go to the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” Butler told me over lunch, invoking the famously scenic channel separating Washington’s Olympic peninsula from Vancouver Island. “I am an aesthete,” he went on, chopping at the air for emphasis. “I know beautiful places. And this place is the best of the best.”
Maine, of course, has a robust tradition of very wealthy people devoting their energies and fortunes to preserving undeveloped landscapes. Within that tradition, Butler and BCF stand out in interesting ways. For starters, many of Maine’s highest-profile benefactors have sought, in some fashion, to place their holdings in the public trust. George Dorr, the blue-blooded father of Acadia, and Roxanne Quimby, the eco-mogul philanthropist behind Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, both set out to donate lands to the National Park Service. Percival Baxter, protector of Katahdin, turned his parcels over to the state as quickly as he could acquire them. Butler, by contrast, is resolute about maintaining BCF’s private ownership in perpetuity by way of endowment.
Several of Maine’s historic patrons, furthermore, have been wary or ambivalent about facilitating widespread public use of their conserved lands. Baxter was explicit that his namesake park was a wilderness first and public access was “to be regarded as of secondary importance.” It’s been said that when heiress Anita Harris deeded land to the state, in 1971, for Brooksville’s Holbrook Island Sanctuary, she had to be persuaded to allow hiking and picnicking. When she died 14 years later, she willed her private island to the park with the stipulation it allow no trails, facilities, picnic sites, or other forms of public recreation.
BCF’s approach stands in stark contrast.
“As a land conservationist myself, we tend to think in decades and centuries in terms of land holdings, and we just don’t build structures, particularly,” says Tim Glidden, president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, to which Butler and BCF have donated since the turn of the ’90s. “But Gil then takes that extra step, and his conservation fund not only is buying the land but is putting in place an organization with infrastructure.”
Matt Polstein, who owns Millinocket’s New England Outdoor Center adventure resort, first heard from Butler in 2011. The philanthropist had come to the Katahdin region to paddle the East Branch of the Penobscot, curious about the river in light of the push to establish a National Park Service property alongside it (what is now Katahdin Woods and Waters). Butler had heard that kids in the area “don’t recreate on anything that doesn’t have a motor,” Polstein says, and was interested in funding a youth outdoor-education program, similar to one he’d established near his childhood home in New York’s Adirondacks in 2008, getting kids out on guided hiking, biking, skiing, and paddling excursions. New England Outdoor Center, Butler thought, could run the program.
“He told me, ‘I love to paddle, so if we could run a river every time I come to talk about educational programming, that would be great,’” Polstein recalls. For the next couple of years, while getting the Maine Outdoor Education Program off the ground, the two paddled streams all over the Penobscot River Basin. Butler might call on a Monday. Polstein would scout a stretch of river that Thursday. On Friday, Butler would fly into Millinocket on his private plane, and the pair would make for the water.
One weekend, Butler requested a trip along the Seboeis, a backcountry stream that joins the East Branch in what’s now the national monument. Access was hairy. Polstein spent a day driving washboard logging roads, some with grass grown in as high as his rims, looking for a place to put in, hanging flags to find his way back. When he brought Butler out, the day was bluebird. They enjoyed some mild whitewater and the wooded peaks of the Katahdin foothills and saw nary a soul. When they took out at the confluence, Butler turned to Polstein.
“I’ve paddled all over the world, and that was equal to the finest river experiences I’ve had,” Polstein recalls him saying. “So where the hell are the people? How come nobody is doing this?”
Butler proposed funding a “river trail” in the Katahdin region — paying for signage, maps, better and easier-to-reach launch facilities. And in the coming years, this idea dovetailed with the need for a campus for the flourishing Maine Outdoor Education Program, which, by 2016, was leading free day trips for some 3,000 northern Maine schoolkids annually. That year, BCF, in collaboration with the Open Space Institute and the Nature Conservancy, purchased a 4,300-acre parcel on the East Branch with nearly 9 miles of river frontage.
“Once they acquired that land,” Polstein says, “the vision just exploded.”
Last year, BCF formally opened Penobscot River Trails on the site, a 16-mile network of crushed-stone carriage trails weaving through woods and bogs, accessing kayak launch sites and a pair of trailside “huts” that look like something out of a swank eco-lodge — high ceilings with exposed beams, Thos. Moser furniture, huge windows with Katahdin views. In the winter, cross-country ski trails are professionally groomed by snowcat, and staffers feed woodstoves in the huts and two visitor centers, one of which has classroom space to service the outdoor-ed program. A fleet of kayaks, mountain bikes, Nordic skis, and snowshoes are available for students or to any visitor by donation. Penobscot River Trails is free to all.
“It is far beyond what I ever imagined it would develop into,” Polstein says. What amazed him most was Butler’s careful oversight — not only to the details in the warming huts, but to the trail building itself, his insistence that trail infrastructure be all but invisible from the water. Granite was brought in to mask culverts. Trees were planted to rehab clearings caused by construction. And construction tools don’t have to be like that.
“How many people hire landscapers and plant trees in the middle of the woods because they don’t want open spaces to remain open too long?” Polstein asks. “He wants a beautiful product immediately. He wants to know, what can I create in my lifetime that I can see?”
“It’s very impressive,” says Glidden, who skied Penobscot River Trails even before the property was formally open. “My first impression was that it’s the perfect place for what he really wants to do, which is to introduce young people to the outdoors.”
Coastal views are big part of what attracted Butler to Cobscook Bay; Old Farm Point Shorefront Park overlooks Lubec, from which it’s an easy paddle; rhe crushed-stone paths at Cobscook Shores and Penobscot River Trails are reminiscent of Acadia’s carriage roads.
These two related impulses — to see rapid results and to get kids outside — were behind BCF’s shift in the early 2010s from predominantly a grant-making organization to one more focused on park building. Butler, his colleagues say, was much affected by Richard Louv’s 2005 bestseller Last Child in the Woods, which argued that screen-addled American kids suffer from a “nature-deficit disorder” affecting their health and behavior — and making them, in the long run, unlikely advocates for wild places. As Butler, then in his 70s, pondered a future where no one played or paddled in the places he had donated to save, “he realized that what he really wanted to do was build parks for people and have them come out and use them,” Carlson says.
Even as BCF laid the groundwork for Cobscook Shores and Penobscot River Trails, the organization was launching equally ambitious park projects in three other regions: the Adirondacks, Patagonia, and the coastal Low Country of South Carolina. These, together with Maine, East Africa, and the British Columbian/Southeast Alaskan coast, are what BCF calls its “legacy geographies” — places special to Butler, where he loves to paddle and has long focused his giving.
A year ago, I happened to find myself in the neighborhood of BCF’s South Carolina property, called the Black River Cypress Preserve, and when I called to see about paddling there myself, a site manager offered a tour of the grounds. As we walked through a breathtaking but foreign-to-me hardwood-wetland landscape, surrounded by buttressed trunks and moss-draped canopies of bald cypresses and water tupelos, I saw a few familiar sights: the same sturdy ipe-wood boardwalks I’d crossed in marshy areas at Penobscot River Trails, a timber-framed screened pavilion like ones I’d seen at Cobscook Shores, an HQ building filled with Thos. Moser furniture.
As we explored, the site manager told me about one of his early encounters with Butler. The founder was walking the property with a group of land managers, architects, and board members, scouting a site for a new cabin, and the process was taking a while. Then, abruptly, Butler said, “Okay, I need some recreation now,” hopped into a kayak, and paddled away. The group was left standing in the swamp, unsure of what to do. A short while later, Butler paddled back and announced he’d found a better place for the cabin. Sure enough, the site manager said, the spot was ideal.
“He’s into every detail,” says Tony Grassi, chair of BCF’s board and, as a Camden resident, its only Mainer. “This is his aesthetic at work. He wants these places to be beautiful. And the more beautiful they are, the more, once you get somebody out there, the light goes off.”
In Lubec, my lunch chat with Butler was brief. He doesn’t relish talking to media — or, as several of his colleagues mention, being the focus of attention whatsoever. But he made an effort to answer my questions, which I appreciated. He also took my notebook and recorder off the table and handed them to a staffer (“I can’t talk that way,” he said), which I appreciated less. After lunch, I hurried to the bathroom to recite into my voice-memo app the few verbatim quotes I remembered. Then, it was off on a group tour of Cobscook Shores.
Red Point once hosted a campground, then a cluster of trailers, and the site had seen better days when BCF made it its first Cobscook acquisition. The point is a wooded, snout-like peninsula dangling into South Bay Narrows, one of Cobscook Bay’s many tendrils, just 4 miles west of downtown Lubec. We walked a brand-new crushed-stone pathway through woods and meadow, passed a pair of freestanding screened porches for bug-free picnicking, and stopped to admire a contorted old geezer of an apple tree, which Carlson said a researcher had told him might date to the 1700s. The park felt bucolic and manicured, a nice spot to picnic with the kids.
Then we clambered down to the shoreline, where the character of the place took a turn for the rugged. The tide was out, exposing cobble beaches and yawning mudflats covered in rockweed. Above, two juvenile bald eagles made circles in the sky (Cobscook has the Northeast’s highest density of our national bird). A walk across the flats would have brought us to a spruce-covered island with some gnarly little cliffs, where BCF has since completed a trail.
“It’s easy to see why he fell in love with this,” Carlson said to me. “This shoreline is almost untouched.”
Next, we decamped to a parcel called Old Farm Point, a couple of miles down the road. BCF’s vision is that visitors will bike among many of the Cobscook Shores parks, as most are reached by rural roads extending up adjacent necks of land. With one outlying exception, no two parks are more than 6 miles from one another, and the Cobscook Shores map shows recommended routes for both bikers and paddlers (plus a patchwork of other protected lands in the neighborhood, from state game lands to land-trust preserves to the vast Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge). Along the state highway connecting Red Point, Old Farm Point, and Lubec, the Maine Department of Transportation plans to pave a bike lane, seeded with BCF funds.
We arrived by carpool caravan, as our tour group was a crowd: Butler and his wife, Ildiko; three out of four members of BCF’s board; a handful of site managers, architects, and communications folks; and three young New York accountants, dressed identically in head-to-toe khaki (this, I later learn, because Butler dresses them, providing matching lightweight shirts, zip-off pants, and fedoras so that all of his team has the best). At 16 acres, Old Farm Point is one of the smallest Cobscook Shores parks — the largest, just up the road, is 160-acre Black Duck Cove — but the metric BCF cares about is shorefront footage, and Old Farm Point has a half mile of it, with a couple of pebbly pocket beaches and small bluffs looking across Johnson Bay into Lubec.
The group split up after that, with Butler and much of his staff tending to business elsewhere. I went into town to board a boat with a group that included Carlson and two of BCF’s board members, Dana Beach and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins — a pair of giants in environmental circles and exemplary of the outsize expertise and clout that BCF is bringing to rural Maine. Beach is the founder and director emeritus of South Carolina’s Coastal Conservation League, one of the country’s most successful regional environmental groups. Tompkins is a former CEO of Patagonia, renowned for helping to create millions of acres of new parkland in Chile and Argentina, together with her late husband, Doug Tompkins, who cofounded the apparel companies The North Face and Esprit. She’s been called “one of the world’s most influential conservationists.” When she was profiled in National Geographic earlier this year, Butler turned up in a quote, praising her “get it done” attitude.
All afternoon, we plied the choppy waters of Cobscook Bay, admiring another half-dozen Cobscook Shores parklands. They were a study in grays and greens, craggy shores twisting and turning, forming a labyrinth of quiet coves and inlets. We passed a site with a long crescent beach, called Huckins Beach, where BCF has since put in five campsites with screened pavilions (free to use, as the parks are free to visit). We spotted seals and a raft of eiders. Beach, an avid birder, pointed out kingfishers and ospreys, and he told stories of paddling in Alaska and biking Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain with Butler, who is two decades his senior. (“You think, he’s got to slow down sometime, but you won’t catch up with him.”) As we approached a park called Race Point, where the bay narrows and small granite islands jut from the water, Tompkins let out a little squeal.
“I feel like I am in Sweden,” she said, affecting a Scandinavian lilt. Carlson pointed out that the islands and peninsulas surrounding Race Point are all conservation land as well, owned by The Nature Conservancy, the Downeast Coastal Conservancy, and others.
“So much of Cobscook Bay is protected that you get a remote, wilderness feeling when you’re here, even though you’re not far from civilization,” he said. “When we’re working in Patagonia, it’s a long way to anything. Here, you’ve got the whole Northeast within a half-day’s drive.”
BCF’s 5- to 10-year goal is for Cobscook Shores to attract 2 to 3 percent of the visitation Acadia receives. It’s ambitious — something like 90,000 visitors a year to a three-season destination two hours up the road from Bar Harbor. By comparison, Cobscook Bay State Park, just a couple of miles from Race Point, as the crow flies, received around 32,000 visitors last year.
Board chair Grassi thinks it’s achievable — and that Cobscook Shores offers much of what Acadia visitors want. “People come to Acadia, and it’s been loved to death, and so they say, where else can I go to get a similar type of experience? Or find the way Acadia used to be?” he says. “I think Gil, in his mind, has measured this project in that vein.”
The next time I saw Butler was a week later, outside one of the warming huts at Penobscot River Trails. He was there for the property’s late-summer grand-opening weekend, although the trails had welcomed in-the-know skiers and bikers all year. I’d visited twice before, and I came for the official opening in part hoping I’d run into Butler, to pick up our conversation.
When I pulled into a bike rack behind him, he recognized me and was gracious. We stepped inside the hut, and Butler told me about the trail-building work PRT was doing along the Seboeis River, on the other side of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, where he and Polstein had taken their fateful paddling trip. He said he hoped that trail and PRT’s paths could link one day, via trails inside the monument.
I mentioned being in some of the public meetings in the Katahdin region back when the monument was still a controversial proposal, the acrimony I’d heard in school gyms at the prospect of a rich outsider like Roxanne Quimby buying up land for a park in timber country. I asked whether he worried about similar blowback.
“It’s a tragedy that the mills closed,” Butler said, referring to the shuttered paper plants in Millinocket and East Millinocket. “What people resent are vast amounts of timberland being taken out of production, but that’s not us. We’re in the business of buying scenery. We just want a ribbon.”
We shook hands soon after and biked off in different directions. On my way back to the visitor center, I nearly crashed my bike into a shambling young black bear that emerged from the woods and then scampered off. A ribbon of manicured park it may be, but don’t say it isn’t wild.
The Cobscook Shores project hasn’t come off without some local rancor. There are clammers who resent BCF’s prohibitions on motorized access, which make it a lot more difficult to access clam flats, even if they’re still welcome to harvest there. And there’s the issue of conservation land owned by nonprofits being exempt from local property taxes, perennially a sore point in rural Maine communities where town administrators are strapped for cash.
“It’s hard. It drives up our mill rate,” says Carol Dennison, chair of the town’s board of selectmen. “But the town has to realize that, in fact, if the park brings people here, and they settle, then the tax base will increase. But it’s not something we’re going to see overnight.”
Carlson makes the same argument, that Cobscook Shores will attract new seasonal and year-round residents. Some 150 locals have been hired to work on the project in some fashion, he says, and he points to the 350 students now participating each year in Cobscook’s version of the Maine Outdoor Education Program. What’s more, Dennison says, Butler has found other ways to contribute to the town. He donated seed money to fund an engineering survey for Lubec’s nascent Safe Harbor project, and that study’s results, Dennison says, were instrumental in the town nabbing a nearly $20 million federal grant to build a new breakwater and more.
I asked Dennison what she thinks the people of Lubec make of Butler’s conviction that Cobscook Bay is the “best of the best,” on par with the superb recreational resources he’s enjoyed in the world’s most celebrated landscapes.
“Of course, the clammers, they all know how beautiful it is on the shores, because they go and work them,” she said. “But then there are people who drive right down Route 189 to Lubec and have no idea what’s on the left or the right. I don’t know if everyone here realizes the beauty of what we have.”