When Nova Tower moved to Portland from New York in 2009, she was bowled over to discover an abundance of pristine beaches and forested trails within such easy reach. “You just don’t have that anywhere else,” she says.
Not until Tower had lived in Maine a few years did she learn that land trusts were responsible for so many of the refuges she adores, keeping them safe, free, and open to the public forever. “The idea of a land trust was a pretty foreign concept,” says Tower, who now co-chairs Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s Next Wave Council, its group of young supporters. “But they’re out there quietly doing this important work to give communities access to these beautiful places.”
The impact of MCHT extends beyond creating the preserves that Tower prizes. Partnering with the state’s more than 80 land trusts, the organization is committed to making the coast more resilient to climate change, feeding the hungry, preserving history, strengthening working waterfronts, and helping to sustain Maine communities in other unexpected ways.
Feeding the Hungry
Maine’s rates of food insecurity are higher than the national average, and traffic to food pantries has soared during the pandemic. At Erickson Fields, a former dairy farm in Rockport, MCHT is feeding many of those Mainers while training local teens in sustainable agriculture and maintaining a cherished green space minutes from bustling Camden and Rockport.
Since teaming up with Maine Farmland Trust to purchase the property in 2008, MCHT has developed a four-acre vegetable farm that yields more than 20,000 pounds of produce every year, which the group provides to local hunger-relief organizations and schools. “When families come in and see that they can get lettuce that’s been grown right in Rockport and picked fresh that morning, you just see them light up,” says Vera Roberts, who volunteers at AIO Food Pantry, in Rockland. “It means so much.”
At MCHT’s Erickson Fields Preserve, local teens work with volunteers to grow and harvest produce, which is provided to area food pantries and schools. The property also features a popular hiking trail.
A teen crew harvests the produce, alongside volunteers and MCHT staff, and they learn about sustainable agriculture and environmental science. More than 50 teenagers have worked at Erickson, and many have pursued careers in the field.
On adjacent land, MCHT built a trail that winds around the garden, through meadows and forest, and connects to the neighboring Beech Hill Preserve, which is managed by Coastal Mountains Land Trust. Roberts is happy to see the land serve the community in so many different ways. “What’s gleaned from this garden benefits such a huge area,” she says.
Strengthening Working Waterfronts
In Lubec, commercial fishing is the beating heart of the community, but for generations, locals have had to brave treacherous brackish waters to access their boats and deliver their catches to the dock.
In 2019, MCHT helped the town apply for a federal grant to build a safer working waterfront; pitched in more than $100,000 to pay for appraisals, environmental studies, and other costs; and helped the town connect with other organizations that could support the effort.
The town received the nearly $20 million grant last year and plans to develop a new boat launch, breakwater, and a protected mooring field, plus docks with room for the Maine Marine Patrol to keep a vessel year-round, reducing their response times to emergencies at sea. “If it wasn’t for MCHT,” says Carol Dennison, chair of Lubec’s Board of Selectmen, “this project would have never gotten off the ground.”
On Malaga Island, in Phippsburg, MCHT played a key role in uncovering an ugly chapter of racial injustice. A community of Black and mixed-race people lived on the island from the mid-1800s until 1912, when the state evicted the residents, exhumed their buried dead, and committed some of them to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded.
In 2001, the island’s owner, who wanted to see it protected from development, sold it to MCHT. Shortly thereafter, archeological work on the site began, and researchers uncovered artifacts like padlocks, fragments of dishes, and cast-iron stoves, which provided evidence about what life on the island community was really like. “That work debunked myths and misunderstandings that had circulated for years about how Malaga residents lived and what they experienced, and that was so important,” state archivist Katherine McBrien says. “Until MCHT came in, Malaga was this island that nobody would talk about.” In 2010, Governor John Baldacci issued an official apology about what happened at Malaga.
MCHT created a mile-long trail on the island, placed markers on the home sites that tell the story of the people who lived there, and opened Malaga to the public in 2002. “It’s one thing to read about history, but when you stand in a place, it sinks in how real and personal it is,” McBrien says. “If Malaga was privately owned, nobody could learn from it. Descendants couldn’t reconnect with their history, and that’s such an important part of the healing process.”
Combating Climate Change
Solutions for rising sea levels and housing shortages don’t typically go hand in hand, but on Mount Desert Island, MCHT and Bar Harbor’s Island Housing Trust teamed up to address both crises with a single project. In 2014, a 60-acre parcel at the head of MDI known as Jones Marsh was for sale. MCHT had been eyeing it too because it had salt marsh surrounded by undeveloped uplands.
Salt marshes play a vital role in combating climate change, protecting developed coastal areas from flooding by absorbing rainwater like a sponge, and buffering high winds during storm surges. Marshes also filter pollutants from stormwater runoff, store carbon dioxide, and provide habitat for birds and shellfish. Properties like the one on MDI that are adjacent to higher ground that hasn’t been developed, are especially valuable, because as sea levels rise, grasses can migrate upland.
Misha Mytar, MCHT’s senior project manager for MDI, saw that Jones Marsh also had another important feature: proximity to Bar Harbor, making it an ideal location for workforce housing. As real-estate values have skyrocketed on MDI and elsewhere, many who work on the island have been priced out of the market. “All along the coast, communities desperately need housing for that missing middle,” Island Housing Trust executive director Marla O’Byrne says.
So MCHT and the housing trust joined forces to acquire the 60-acre property. MCHT bought 30 acres of salt marsh for conservation, and IHT acquired the other half to build 10 energy-efficient housing units and sell them to residents who meet income guidelines. “We have a mission to protect land,” Mytar says. “But we also have a responsibility to play whatever role we can in protecting these communities and making sure they’re livable for Maine people.”
Whole Islands Protected
Miles of Trail
The only conservation organization working statewide to protect the coast from development and keep it open to all, MCHT has permanently preserved hundreds of places from Kittery to Lubec over the past 50 years. Learn more about the organization’s efforts at mcht.org/conservation.