CAPE ELIZABETH — Five years ago, the idea of an arboretum at Fort Williams Park was simply a hopeful conversation among a handful of residents.

Now the project is well under way, with the clearing of a first site along the cliffs that overlook Casco Bay.

Workers continue to excavate the roots of invasive plants, including sumac, bittersweet and Japanese knotweed. The goal is to have the site, called Cliffside, ready in the spring for planting of native shrubs and trees such as red maple, red oak and birch.

Cliffside will also feature new walkways, stone steps and a grass amphitheater. It is the first of 15 distinct areas that are envisioned in the plan for the Arboretum at Fort Williams Park. The sites would be linked by a trail system.

Planners hope that the project, with a cost estimate of $400,000, will be substantially completed by 2014, the 50th anniversary of the town’s ownership of the former military installation. Planners are relying on grants and private donations to meet that timeline.

“Depending on our fundraising efforts, we are really hoping to plant in the spring” at Cliffside, said Sarah Boudreau, vice chairwoman of the arboretum steering committee. “It’s very exciting to see the work being done out there.”

Clearing and excavation at the site began last fall, but the project was put on hold after concerns were raised about the presence of New England cottontail rabbits.

The state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife identified droppings from the rabbits, which were placed on Maine’s list of threatened and endangered species in 2007. The New England cottontail is also a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

State workers came to the park to relocate any rabbits they could find, said Town Manager Michael McGovern. He said they found only one rabbit, which eluded them. The arboretum committee got approval to resume work this summer.

The committee’s first major fundraising effort, a “Hidden Gardens of Cape Elizabeth” tour on July 9, sold out, Boudreau said. Including that event, the committee has raised more than $150,000 toward the overall goal. Members realize there is a long way to go, she said.

The arboretum is a project of the Fort Williams Charitable Foundation. The general idea is to remove many of the invasive plants that have overgrown the park’s trail system. Those plants will be replaced over time with a diverse collection of native trees, shrubs, and some nonnative plants and trees that are compatible. Open areas, educational gardens and a clear trail system are called for, as well.

The 90-acre park, home to Portland Head Light, is one of New England’s historic jewels and one of Maine’s biggest tourist draws.

The town bought the fort from the federal government in 1964 for $200,000, and designated it as a park in 1979. Annual estimates of the number of visitors range to more than 1 million, but the town has not kept an official count.

“Citizen and visitor satisfaction with the condition of the park is an area of concern,” steering committee members said in a list of goals and objectives, posted on the project’s website.

“Favorite views have been overgrown by invasive species, the trail system is incomplete, and the park lacks flowering or interesting trees and plantings. The deteriorating horticultural condition of the park needs to be addressed in order to preserve this priceless legacy.”

Kathryn Bacastow, a master gardener who grew up in Cape Elizabeth, began forming the arboretum committee around 2006. Committee members brought the concept to the Town Council in 2008, and councilors have supported the project.

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: [email protected]