More than 2,600 acres around Bald Mountain Pond in Somerset County, a popular site along the Appalachian Trail, was protected in 2020. Chris Bennett photo

The year of the coronavirus pandemic was like no other. The rush of people getting outside to recreate in nature also proved unprecedented. 

Sales of outdoor equipment spiked – from boats, ATVs, to remote camps. State campgrounds set attendance records. And on public lands the typically little-used trails were bustling, while the perennial favorites were packed – or closed completely because of overcrowding.

Despite a spike in unemployment and uncertainty over the economy, another unexpected, positive outdoor story played out: Conservation and trail expansion in Maine marched onward.

Here is just a sample of the top conservation success stories in Maine in 2020:

BALD MOUNTAIN POND

This summer, more than 2,600 acres of land around Bald Mountain Pond in Somerset County was protected with the help of The Trust For Public Land. The popular destination along the Appalachian Trail just east of Caratunk includes 9 miles of shoreline and offers backcountry hiking, camping, paddling, and fishing for wild brook trout and Arctic char. 

The land was purchased for just over $4 million from the timber company Weyerhaeuser, which previously allowed recreation on the land. The National Park Service, the Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust and the state now will manage it. The parcel not only adds an outdoor playground for wilderness travelers, it will help protect the biodiversity in the northern forest. 

BOUNDARY MOUNTAIN PRESERVE

In August, The Nature Conservancy announced the purchase of 9,608-acres of forestland in Franklin County from Bayroot LLC. Located adjacent to 22,000 acres of public land in Quebec, it increased a corridor of protected land that extends north from the White Mountains – a strategy the Conservancy said is key in helping maintain biodiversity in a warming climate.

The Boundary Mountain Preserve north of Carrabassett Valley near the Canadian border was conserved in 2020 by The Nature Conservancy. The preserve features old logging roads, but no trail system. However, hikers, hunters and fishermen are welcome to recreate on the land.

The Boundary Mountain Preserve has old logging roads, but no trail system. Hikers, hunters and fishermen are welcome. Jerry Monkman photo

The new Boundary Mountain Preserve provides a key corridor for wildlife at an elevation that benefits many species as wildlife ranges shift north during climate change. It also protects more mature forest that can pull and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

“Two decades ago, TNC scientists identified a set of sites across Maine that together represent the best opportunities to conserve Maine’s biodiversity into the future. So this site has long been identified as a priority for conservation,” said Mark Berry, the Conservancy’s forest program director in Maine.

The preserve just north of Carrabassett Valley is remote and undeveloped. It includes several peaks, such as 3,648-foot Caribou Mountain. Hikers, birders, hunters and fishermen are welcome – and the streams in the preserve feed into the Kennebec watershed, including the Moose River.

PRIDE PRESERVE

At 188 acres, the new preserve in Westbrook that was donated to the Presumpscot Region Land Trust this summer is one of the largest in Greater Portland. Just 2 miles west of Portland, it borders more than 50 acres of the Falmouth Hardy Road Conservation Area.

Florence Pride Hawkes and her family donated 155 acres and Wayne and Donalene Nelsen donated an adjoining 33 acres – a combined land gift worth at least $500,000 (although the land was not appraised), according to the land trust.

But the funding needed to acquire the two gifts was in doubt during the pandemic, said Rachelle Curran Apse, the land trust’s executive director.

Hawkes approached the land trust just before the pandemic to donate the land, but the non-profit still needed to raise $80,000 to have it surveyed, to pay legal costs and build the 3.5-mile trail network. Immediately, donations poured in from 111 individuals, a local foundation and the city of Westbrook.

“It was incredible to see in the middle of the pandemic, with so much going on in people’s lives. Within three months in the spring, we had the funds we needed,” Apse said.

SACO HEATH EXTENSION

In June, The Nature Conservancy added a 46-acre piece to the Saco Heath, just six months after adding a 67-acre parcel to increase the preserve’s total acreage to 1,387 acres. The additions connect previously separated portions and further protect rare plants and wildlife in the rare heath.

This unique gem features a half-mile-long boardwalk that provides access to the bog and forestland that is home to moose, deer, and snowshoe hare and rare plants – such as Labrador tea, leather-leaf, and sheep laurel. It also boasts one of the largest stands of Atlantic white cedar in Maine, which provides forage for one of only a few populations of Hessel’s hairstreak butterfly in the state.

The Saco Heath has been closed during the pandemic because the boardwalk is too narrow to allow for social distancing.

STRAWBERRY CREEK

In a shorter-than-expected fundraising campaign, the Harpswell Heritage Trust raised $350,000 by November to be able to purchase and preserve two properties at the mouth of Strawberry Creek – a total of 3.3 acres on the east side of the creek that also includes 12 acres of intertidal mudflats and rockweed beds.

Kristi Eiane, Harpswell’s town administrator, called it one of the most iconic views in the scenic coastal town.

The Harpswell Heritage Trust raised $350,000 to preserve 3.3 acres at the mouth of Strawberry Creek, including a tidal island. Jeff Wood photo

Julia McLeod, the land trust’s outreach director, said when the land owners agreed to sell the properties to the nonprofit earlier this year, it needed to raise the funds by early 2021 – a goal that seemed difficult during the pandemic. But just six months after the first donation was made, more than 300 locals contributed to the effort that will protect the land in the next month.

“We were worried about asking for money during such an uncertain and challenging time, and we were somewhat surprised by the strong community support for the project,” McLeod said. “I think people were and are looking for a concrete way to make a difference when so much seems out of our control. We’re all staying closer to home and thinking about what really matters to us.” 


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