Thanks to a very generous landowner in Harrison, the Western Foothills Land Trust and Portland Water District now have a conservation easement on 690 acres between the Crooked River and Weston Farm Road.

Owned by the Watkins family, the acreage is one of the largest parcels in the town of Harrison. The land, which is almost completely forested, will remain free from development for all time. However, what’s most notable is the Watkins family decided to donate the easement.

“We’re interested in maintaining it as natural forest,” Mr. Watkins said.  “We would be highly offended if this ever became developed into house lots.”

The Watkinses are in their 80s and winter each year in Pennsylvania.

The family purchased this property almost 40 years ago and has spent every summer there. They own timberland in other states and first came to Maine in search of an investment property they could harvest from.

“We found this particular parcel, which had an old 1825 farmhouse on it,” Watkins recalls. “It was originally just 300 acres; subsequently, we’ve added to it.  It’s a beautiful place to be.”

The family has children that will inherit the parcel and continue to harvest timber, a practice the conservation easement will allow.

Originally, the family thought their development rights would be purchased. But they ultimately decided to donate the easement largely because of the inherent complications involved in such agreements, and that donating would free them from some governmental restrictions.

The parcel includes one mile of frontage along the Crooked River. Because greater Portland’s water supply is drawn from Sebago Lake, which the Crooked River ultimately flows into, the Portland Water District Board of Trustees voted unanimously in offering a $6,750 Lake Stewardship Grant towards preparing the easement. The grant will help the Western Foothills Land Trust cover monitoring and easement costs. 

The Habitat Protection Committee of the Casco Bay Estuary Program also contributed $2,500.

Paul Hunt, environmental services manager at Portland Water District, said the district is interested in preserving any and all land in the Sebago Lake watershed.

“Some folks may be wondering why we’re interested in helping to pay for an easement miles away from the lake,” Hunt said, “but the watershed is over 300,000 acres – eighty percent of which is forested and privately held. We want to help owners to keep it in its natural state.”

According to the Western Foothills Land Trust, based in Norway, it’s been shown that water quality begins to decline measurably when forest cover in a New England watershed falls below 80 percent. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a satellite digital mapping technology, the Portland Water District has determined that the percent of forested area in the Crooked River watershed has dropped five percent in 10 years to a total of eighty-five percent forested.

Prior to finalizing the easement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did an assessment on the Watkins parcel and found many high-value species, including bald eagle, osprey, little blue heron, northern goshawk and northern harrier. Songbirds include black-throated blue warbler, grasshopper sparrow, Louisiana water thrush, prairie warbler and wood thrush. Some 32 acres of high-value wetlands are also contained within.

“We’ve been working on the easement for over two years trying to get things right,” Watkins said. “We plan to continue allowing a snowmobile trail that passes through, but ultimately, we want to forever preserve the land while continuing to harvest timber.”

It’s a success story that doesn’t happen everyday.

Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at:
presswriter@gmail.com