Jeremy Miller, a research associate at the Wells Reserve, does a systems check Wednesday at a NOAA monitoring site on the Webhannet River in Wells Harbor. Miller is apprehensive about the possibility of federal funding cuts under the Trump administration. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

The Wells Reserve at Laudholm could become a casualty of a Trump administration plan to slash the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The proposed cuts – which would scrap the Sea Grant program and cut funding for fisheries management, weather prediction and satellite operations – also would eliminate funding for the nation’s 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves, including Wells Reserve in southern Maine and the Great Bay National Estuarine Reserve in southern New Hampshire, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The Wells Reserve – 2,250 acres of salt marsh, dunes, forest and grasslands – is part of the NOAA network of estuary reserves. The reserves facilitate research and conservation of estuaries, the places where rivers meet the sea and that serve as key nursery and grazing habitat for myriad aquatic, marine, bird and animal species. The Wells Reserve, visited by 30,000 people a year, is also a popular site for hiking and birdwatching.

“I’m generally cautious and conservative in how I phrase things, but I can say without equivocation that this would be tremendously harmful for the Wells Reserve, all our programs and this wonderful site,” said Paul Dest, director of the Wells Reserve at Laudholm. The reserve is managed as a public-private partnership among NOAA, the state parks bureau and coastal program, and Laudholm Trust, a local nonprofit named for the former farm at the center of the reserve.

All of NOAA’s estuarine reserves are partnerships with state and local organizations. The federal agency doesn’t own the land or hire employees, but provides 70 percent of the operating costs of reserves, which serve as sites for research, education, wildlife and habitat conservation and provide public access to the coast and open land. State governments are NOAA’s primary partners and contribute matching funds at most of the reserves, but not at Wells, where the Laudholm Trust raises more than $300,000 each year toward the reserve’s $1.1 million budget.

A weather-bleached tree lies at the mouth of the Little River. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Elimination of the estuarine reserves program was part of a package of cuts outlined by the Office of Management and Budget aimed at slashing NOAA’s budget by 17 percent for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1. The proposal is an important part of the annual budget process but is subject to negotiation, first between NOAA and the White House, and later within Congress, which must approve the budget.

Cory Riley, president of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association and manager of the 10,000-acre Great Bay Reserve northwest of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is confident that the program will be restored in the final budget. “We have a lot of support from our delegation, not just in New Hampshire but across the country,” she said, speaking in her role with the national association. “The reserves have so much local benefit, it puts us in a better position than some federal agencies might be.”

It’s unclear how many of the reserves would survive if the cuts did take place, Riley said. “Most of us have facilities and land that require management, but it would put state and local partners in a very awkward situation to come up with the 70 percent of the budget” funded by NOAA.

A kiosk welcomes visitors to the Wells Reserve and Laudholm Trust. The reserve, a popular place for hiking and birdwatching, draws 30,000 visitors a year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Wells Reserve was founded in 1990 around the Laudholm Farm, a 500-acre coastal farmstead. The farm buildings now house research facilities, a lecture space and classrooms, drawing 8,000 schoolchildren annually. Staff scientists and researchers from the University of Maine, University of New England and other institutions monitor and study the surrounding estuaries and coastal habitats. Visitors come for the 7-mile trail system and a small science museum, the Marine Coastal Ecology Center. It employs 14 people year-round, and has 10 to 25 seasonal workers and interns in summer.

“Folks like the Wells Reserve who are doing this kind of research, education and outreach are vital to communities across the country, mine included,” said state Rep. Robert Foley, R-Wells. “I would be very concerned about these cuts and will certainly be expressing those concerns to our federal delegation as this goes forward.”

The proposed cuts came without warning. Dest, who was meeting last Friday with NOAA officials in Washington, said none of them had any inkling about the cuts until the Post story was published that evening. “It’s hard to imagine what this would mean for Wells, because NOAA and its mission and ours have been intertwined since the beginning,” he said. “It’s a scenario we haven’t even been able to sit down and discuss yet.”

Liam Dougherty, an intern at the Wells Reserve, prepares fish larvae samples collected in nearby estuaries. The reserve has 2,250 acres of salt marsh, dunes, forest and grasslands. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Nik Charov, president of the Laudholm Trust and chairman of the Wells Reserve’s management authority, said the reserve has been planning to add programs next year. “Instead, we’d have to take a hatchet to them,” he notes. “This is unprecedented.”

It’s also hard to imagine proceeding without NOAA, Charov said.

“They are integral to what we’ve done, from saving the Laudholm Farm and restoring the buildings and converting them to their science-based mission to their operations today,” he said. “It’s absolutely integral to who we are.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]