HARPSWELL — A recent conservation grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to go a long way toward helping the town preserve its local habitat, and the local economy.

Reed Coles, executive director of Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, Monday said the $300,000 grant to purchase 63 acres on White Island will help support what makes the town unique: its marine resources.

“From Harpswell’s point of view, it’s important to (the) ‘shellfish economy,'” Coles said. “It’s also important to its recreational economy as well, because to the extent you have a good wildlife habitat … you support the recreation tourism economy.”

Most recently, the fishing and aquaculture industry have become a particular focus for the town’s Economic Development Strategy Committee, which is developing strategies with an outside planning firm to boost the local economy.

For Coles, however, the focus is on establishing easements and preserving land, like the parcel on White Island, to protect the resources that make economies like Harpswell’s possible.

Steve Walker, a state biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said while towns like Harpswell do a good job at planning residential development around sensitive ecosystems, his office has still seen more development sprout up that could threaten the balance.

There are different aspects of residential development that can affect areas like coastal wetlands, Walker said. That includes septic systems, piers and riprap – the loose stone structures used to protect shorelines against erosion.

“People don’t like the look of that erosion,” Walker said, ” … so they start riprapping (the shoreline) so it cuts off that sediment supply.”

For bodies of water like Middle Bay, where White Island sits, that can be a major problem. “Each of these have environmental impacts on these resources,” Walker said.

Middle Bay, along with the adjacent Maquoit Bay, were named a statewide focus area of ecological significance by Beginning with Habitat, a collaborative program between federal, state and local governments and non-governmental groups that Walker manages.

The two bays are unique, Walker said, because their relative position to Casco Bay allows them to receive a steady flow of nutrients that allow for healthy eel grass and enriched mudflats – something that is “irreplaceable” for species like shorebirds.

Other species in that habitat include quahogs, mussels, soft shell clams, wading birds and water fowl.

Besides supporting those species, Walker said the eel grass also helps counteract ocean acidification, which can be harmful to local habitat.

Walker said the “focus area” designation – one of 141 in the state – isn’t meant to regulate activity, but to help advise organizations like HHLT for future planning.

“We designate a focus area to help local land trusts and local municipalities plan for strategic conservation,” Walker said, “where you can invest those limited dollars and get the most bang for the buck.”

For Coles, the recent federal grant helped make a purchase of land possible when it previously was not. But the landowners shared a common value with the land trust.

“Usually where they are is they have a strong emotional attachment to the land they’ve been there for generations or they’ve been there much of their own lives and they just want to see it conserved forever,” Coles said. “They want to see its beauty, its qualities and its wildlife habitat preserved forever.”

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.

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The shore of White Island, located in Middle Bay between Brunswick and Harpswell Neck.

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