CAPE ELIZABETH – It’s hard to envision Maine’s rocky coast harboring “a jungle,” but that’s what Nate Greene said much of the shoreline at Fort Williams Park has become.

Non-native species, overgrown shrubs and trees choked by vines have combined to block off some of the prettiest views from the 90-acre park, said Greene, a member of a steering committee that is overseeing and doing much of the work to clear those vistas.

The group, which operates under the umbrella of the Fort Williams Charitable Foundation, is creating an arboretum at the park, a set of as many as 15 landscapes that will clear out the undergrowth, replace invasive plants with native species and create new trails linking the areas.

The first landscape will be unveiled at open houses Saturday and Oct. 22, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. The site, called “Cliffside,” is just south of the beach at Fort Williams Park.

Greene said the site isn’t finished yet, since many of the plants that will go in the area aren’t scheduled to be planted until next spring and a stone wall won’t go in until later this fall, weather permitting. But visitors will see the natural amphitheater that has been created, a small terraced area that includes a flat space for a performer and grassy “steps,” where spectators will be able to sit and lean back against a hillside.

There’s also a gravel walkway that links to the Cliff Walk along the oceanside edge of the park, trees that have been freed from the undergrowth and vines, and a view of the ship channel that once was obscured by a wall of shrubs.

Greene, who said he is a semi-retired landscape gardener, said it was hard to see the potential of the place until volunteers had spent several weeks clearing out the undergrowth. The changes that are made, he said, work with the lay of the land, not against it.

“We listened to the land,” he said. “We’ve not really changed anything.”

The first site cost about $330,000, even with some of the material – like the stones for the walls – and much of the labor donated by volunteers. The entire arboretum will cost about $4 million, Greene said, and the site of the first landscape was picked with that price at least partially in mind.

Cliffside is easily accessible, just off the park’s main road. A large parking area next to the parade ground is just a few dozen yards away.

“If you want to stimulate donations, this is the obvious place,” Greene said.

The steering committee recently revised its master plan for the arboretum, and the new version was approved by the Town Council on Wednesday. Five landscapes that were planned for a protected area of the park were moved, to avoid any question of whether the landscaping would be allowed.
The effort has had some stumbles.

Work was halted when state officials suspected that the brush clearing was disturbing the habitat of New England cottontail rabbits. One rabbit was almost trapped, Greene said, but he’s not sure there are many in the area because there’s a fairly sizable population of foxes in the park.

He said the steering committee is sensitive to the impact on wildlife and plans to plant fruit trees, as well as ground shrubs, to provide some food and hiding areas for small animals. The goal is to support, not supplant, wildlife in the park, he said.

Greene said the views of the volunteers are reflected by an answer provided by a Windham man who has worked on the landscape week after week.

Asked why he put so much effort into a park well outside his hometown, he said, “‘Because the park is free,’ ” Greene said. “That’s the big motivation for us: it’s the prettiest free park in the state of Maine.”

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]