Hog Island Ledge is one of Portland’s most cherished city parks, but the future of the tiny island on which Fort Gorges stands is more murky than ever. The structural integrity of the 155-year-old fortification is gradually faltering, leading to fears that the city may eventually curtail or eliminate public access. At the same time, the crumbling bricks and shifting walls have spurred a much-needed conversation about what sort of park we want Hog Island Ledge to be. Some, like the developers who recently proposed commercializing the fort, envision it becoming a place that offers the same amenities and comforts you’d find on Peaks Island or in the Old Port.

In advance of a public forum Wednesday on the future of the fort, hosted by the Portland Parks Conservancy and the Portland Parks Commission, we would like to present an alternative vision, one that prioritizes what makes the fort such a magical place and that offers opportunities for new uses.

A common narrative about the current state of the fort is that it is a neglected and abandoned space that is inaccessible and underutilized. However, a visit to the city park on any beautiful summer day offers a different view.

The beaches are dotted with kayaks, dinghies and small outboards and sailboats. The stone gun ports and stairwells echo with the chatter of families picnicking, kids’ camp groups and kayak guides giving history tours. Rather than visiting the nearby islands, where one can find restaurants, hotels, large yachts, paved roads and a wide range of amenities, the estimated 6,000-plus summer visitors to the city park have opted for a more primitive experience amid a structure that is gorgeous and fascinating in its current state.

Imagine this scenario: Five years from now, after an extensive fundraising campaign, work has been done to stabilize the structure and make it safer for public use. Day visitors arrive by small boat and explore the fort freely, just as they have for decades. Improved signage and simple exhibits educate visitors about what makes the fort historically and ecologically significant, while placing the fort in a broader historic context and encouraging stewardship.

A caretaker once again lives in the fort, as when it was used for military storage. The caretaker greets and educates visitors, manages facilities, keeps beaches clean and ensures the island remains ecologically healthy, safe and welcoming – just as seasonal caretakers do on other islands used heavily by small boaters in southern Maine. Restored, the officers’ quarters shelter a small number of primitive overnight accommodations in the style of Appalachian Mountain Club huts.

The improved structure more easily accommodates special events, which could be permitted just like in any city park, and youth groups are occasionally granted special permission to camp on the parade grounds. Fees from events, commercial tour groups and overnight stays help fund the management and maintenance of the park. In short, Hog Island Ledge is an enhanced version of what it has been for decades – a special Portland park that is appreciated and enjoyed by many.

Imagine that this vision is created, refined and implemented by the many nonprofit organizations, government agencies and small businesses that already use and serve as park stewards. Friends of Fort Gorges has led the way in raising funds and facilitating partnerships. Rippleffect, Maine Island Kayak Co. and Portland Paddle all guide kayak groups to the fort regularly, sharing historical and ecological information and encouraging “leave no trace” practices. SailMaine brings young sailors to the fort. The Maine Island Trail Association includes the fort as part of the trail and sends volunteers to help clear trash, battle invasive plants and educate visitors about island stewardship. The Friends of Casco Bay diligently care for the ecology of the bay in which the fort is situated. The city takes overall responsibility for the park and does what it can with the very limited funds available.

Few cities have such a perfect haven for small boaters so nearby. Rather than transforming this park into a space that’s resource-intensive and counter to Hog Island Ledge’s raw and rugged character, let’s bring all these stakeholders together to preserve and enhance what’s already working.

This column was edited at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 3, to more accurately reflect who is hosting Wednesday’s forum on the future of Fort Gorges.


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