Rachelle Curran Apse, executive director of Presumpscot Regional Land Trust, stands at the edge of Little Duck Pond during a recent tour of the East Windham Conservation Project, a planned 650-acre preserve. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

WINDHAM — After a mile, the broad logging road reached a clearing with distant views over green woodland to New Hampshire’s White Mountains. It was quiet on this early June morning, save the sounds of songbirds and a breeze brushing the trees. Rachelle Curran Apse paused to take it in.

Portland City Hall is 13 miles away. The busy Route 302 retail strip that many people associate with this town is even closer. But for Apse, for a moment, the developed world seemed far away, although she knew it was creeping closer.

“We can protect this place forever,” she said. “People will be able to come here for generations.”

Apse is executive director of the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust. Working with the town of Windham and other partners, the trust is raising money to buy more than 660 acres of hilly woodland that includes undeveloped shoreline on a scenic pond.

These woods will connect with adjacent conservation land in town and in neighboring Falmouth. Together they will create a  2,000-acre block of preserved land with a 30-mile trail network, saving one of the last big open spaces in Maine’s fastest-growing region from becoming house lots. Taken together, it will be larger than any state park in southern Maine, Apse noted.

Rachelle Curran Apse, executive director of Presumpscot Regional Land Trust, is working with the town of Windham to buy more than 660 acres of woodland that will connect with adjacent conservation land in town and neighboring Falmouth. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“This is going to be a huge destination,” Apse said of the planned preserve. “There’s nothing else like this close to the urban core. Two hundred thousand people within a dozen miles. It’s a big deal.”


What’s happening here in Windham is taking place across Greater Portland. Conservation interests are scrambling to try to preserve the region’s remaining unfragmented forests and wetlands, as the pace of development quickens.

Amid the sprawl, they are racing to stitch together large preserves. They see a fading opportunity to save significant habitat for wildlife, forests to protect water quality and store climate-changing carbon dioxide and places where Mainers can go to be in nature 100 years from now.

One lesson from the pandemic, Apse said, is that people want recreational opportunities closer to home. They yearn for nearby destinations to hike, bike, fish or take in an unspoiled view,  a desire reinforced by today’s high gasoline prices.

That’s especially true in fast-growing Windham, which has become a bustling suburb of 19,000 residents but has only 4 percent of its land conserved. The clearing where Apse stood to marvel at the view could easily be turned into a housing development if the landowners here had different objectives.

“It’s an opportunity that won’t come again, so close to the urban core,” she said.

In mid-June, town voters approved a $1.8 million conservation bond to go toward the land. The motion passed with an overwhelming show of hands. That action stitched up 80 percent of the fundraising needed for the project’s total development cost of $3.6 million.


The vote marked a gratifying moment for Amanda Lessard, Windham’s planning director. It validated a process that began in 2017. That’s when the town updated its comprehensive plan, and in 2021, when it adopted its first open space plan. Identifying high-priority properties, working with partners to secure them and expanding connectivity were all facets of the plan.

A deer skitters across a dirt road at the East Windham Conservation Project, a planned 650-acre preserve that includes a remote pond and trails to a scenic view. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The East Windham Conservation Project, as it’s known, may also in time add a new dimension to the town’s identity.

In a survey done to gauge community priorities, 65 percent of the 902 respondents said they’d like to visit an observation tower with 360-degree views, and to see the White Mountains. That jibes with the long-term goal of building a 60-foot high observation tower on Atherton Hill, where a fire tower once stood. It will offer a panorama stretching from Mount Washington to Casco Bay.

This potential has Lessard and others drawing comparisons to 730-acre Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, roughly 20 miles north of Portland. Generations of area residents have trekked onto its 485-foot-high ledge to enjoy sweeping views to the city out to Casco Bay. They also come to hike or ride its extensive, interconnected trail system.

“This creates the opportunity to put Windham on the map as a recreational destination, as well,” she said.



The urgency around acquiring the Windham property was evident at the Land For Maine’s Future Program, the state entity that helps buy land of special natural or recreational value. It announced in early June that the town would receive $1 million to help buy 661 acres for the project.

East Windham was the largest parcel among 20 projects receiving a total of $5.08 million. Included were three other properties that expand existing recreational opportunities and ecological values near Maine’s largest population centers: The 147-acre Thayer Brook Preserve in Gray, adjacent to the Libby Hill Forest trail network; the 156-acre Talking Brook Public Lands, which combines with a 37-acre state-owned property with a trail system between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn; and the 16-acre North Deering Conservation & Recreation Land, a parcel within Portland’s city limits that features an existing trail network.

These approvals were noteworthy because a third of  project applications came from cities and towns, not conservation interests such as land trusts. They reflect a growing desire to secure more undeveloped space close to where people live. They underscore the value of being outdoors and interacting with nature for physical, mental and spiritual health, said Sarah Demers, director of the Land for Maine’s Future program.

This movement complements a well-established state priority referred to as community conservation. Big community conservation efforts around Greater Portland will have an added benefit, Demers said. They can take pressure off existing, popular destinations that get overused in peak seasons.

“All you have to do is go to Bradbury Mountain in the summer and you can see there’s more need than opportunity,” she said. “No doubt in my mind, when the East Windham project is secured and infrastructure built, people will come.”



People are coming to North Yarmouth, a still largely rural suburb north of the city. But the once-sleepy village center on Route 115 has a different look and feel than it did 10 years ago, when Chris Cabot and his family bought a home there. Development has become such a heated topic that voters in March approved a building cap in the village center.

The second phase of a subdivision lined with $600,000-plus homes is taking shape near the once-sleepy North Yarmouth village center. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I look out my kitchen window, and what was 100 acres of woods is now houses,” Cabot said.

On a hillside behind Cabot’s house, the second phase of a subdivision lined with $600,000-plus homes is taking shape. If anyone wants to see how quickly a rural corner of Greater Portland can change, take a drive here.

But a drive-by won’t provide a complete picture. The subdivision’s cul-de-sac is only a thousand feet as the duck flies from the Knight’s Pond Preserve, a 334-acre sanctuary where the only structures are beaver lodges and a rough shelter where Boy Scouts camp. Deer, coyotes, fish and birds are the residents here, living in a hilly, upland forest interspersed with wetlands, a 46-acre pond, two smaller water bodies and miles of trails.

Knight’s Pond Preserve is an example of how conservation interests acted just in time, as land prices and development pressures escalated.

“We’re working hard to protect the last big boxes of land,” said Cabot, executive director of the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust. “It’s such a pivotal time for conservation work.”


Cabot’s group, along with the towns of Cumberland and North Yarmouth, the Royal River Conservation Trust and other partners, secured 213 acres in 2015. They’ve since been able to acquire more land and have their eyes on adjacent parcels.

The developer of this subdivision in North Yarmouth donated 13 acres to Knight’s Pond Preserve, (which can barely be seen near the powerline at top of photo). When construction is finished, a new parking area and trail head will provide more access to the preserve. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Most recently, the developer of the subdivision out Cabot’s window donated 13 acres next to the preserve. When construction’s done, a new parking area and trailhead will let village residents walk under a power line and onto the preserve. That will add a second entry point to a treasured, local resource for everything from dog walking to birdwatching, hunting to ice skating. The chief trailhead now is on a dead-end road in neighboring Cumberland.

“Both communities will now have great access to a beautiful place,” Cabot said.


Alan Stearns remembers a vision expressed by a former town selectman, when the Knight’s Pond land was first being discussed: It could become the Central Park for North Yarmouth and Cumberland.

Sure, North Yarmouth isn’t Manhattan and never will be. But the analogy, said Stearns, executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust, is the concept of integrating land protection as a component of  development, not something separate from the community.


A compelling way to see this concept, and how fast suburban growth can nibble away at undeveloped land in Greater Portland, is to view the Knight’s Pond area as a bird sees it.

Stearns’ team produced two maps from aerial photos taken in 1996 and 2022. They show at a glance how in a quarter-century –  a blink of the eye in the life of a town – house lots have eroded the core block of surrounding forest. It resembles a before-and-after picture of an ocean tide, steadily reshaping the shoreline.

A beaver lodge sits in the middle of Knight’s Pond, part of a 334-acre wildlife and recreation preserve that straddles North Yarmouth and Cumberland. The preserve is an example of how conservation interests are racing to save the last large parcels of undeveloped land around Greater Portland, amid fast-growing suburbs. Tux Turkel/Staff Writer

That’s the relevance of the Central Park comparison. In 1858, central Manhattan featured a small village, farms and wetlands. Creating a 843-acre park took foresight and action.

“It takes very intentional action to hang on to habitat,” Stearns said. “It doesn’t happen by accident that 1,000 acres of woods remain.”

Unlike northern Maine, Stearns said, land in Greater Portland has been split into multiple ownerships over two centuries. Today development pressure and cultural shifts are diluting Maine’s unique tradition of permissive use, by which landowners allow the public to respectfully recreate on unposted land.

The urgent challenge now is reassembling these parcels of forests into conservation blocks that secure public access. The vision is how to integrate them into surrounding, growing communities, with an eye to what the area will look like in 100 years.



That vision is just starting to form in Gray.

Libby Hill forms a height of land between the Presumpscot and Royal River watersheds. Close to Gray’s village center on Route 26, the area also features district school campuses and the 200-acre Libby Hill Forest, prized for its running and nordic ski trails.

“We like to say that it’s a secret little jewel we have in Gray,” said Sandy Carder, the town council’s chair.

But Libby Hill holds another secret. It’s flanked by roughly 2,000 acres of privately owned forest, one of the largest unfragmented habitats in the region.

Gray is bisected by the Maine Turnpike, midway between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn. More development is inevitable.


Consider again two birds-eye views, this time of Libby Hill in 2022, and again in 2047. What will the tide of development look like, a quarter-century on?

Lately, Carder said, the suburban housing boom has made  residents realize that the surrounding farm fields and woods they have historically used for outdoors recreation may not be available forever. Reflecting that awareness, the town updated its comprehensive plan in 2020 with a first-ever open space plan.

“The process opened a lot of eyes,” Carder said. “Most of our access is through verbal agreements. If we don’t have a formal plan to save the pieces we want to save, time goes by and then it’s too late.”


Beyond their ecological significance, what’s special about saving these last big open spaces around Portland is the diversity of experiences they can offer to people.

Those potential attractions could be seen or imagined in East Windham, as Apse walked up the 2-mile logging road that traverses the center of the property. Shortly after a deer darted across the road, Apse stopped at a small clearing, the first of four view spots. New England’s highest peak, 60 or so miles northwest, came into view.


“You get a sneak peak of Mount Washington, which is fun,” she said, noting the last white remnants of snow on the steep flanks.

Plans are still evolving. But as she walked, Apse pointed to selected locations on this large, elevated land. Here’s the potential for parking. Over there could be gentle switchback trails for less-mobile visitors. Steeper, remote paths that will appeal to hikers might start here. They could connect with miles of trails in the adjacent Lowell Preserve on the way to the North Falmouth Community Forest and Blackstrap Hill Preserve.

The view of the White Mountains from atop the East Windham Conservation Project, a planned 650-acre preserve that includes a remote pond. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Trails are a definite attraction. Responses from the community survey found that 86 percent of people picked walking as the chief attraction; 84 percent said hiking. More than half wanted a wide, year-round access trail onto the property.

The logging road eventually reaches 580-foot Atherton Hill. A fire tower stood on the summit until 2000. That’s where the new observation tower would be built.

A fork in the logging road leads through the woods down to a special destination, a shallow 43-acre pond. Little Duck Pond has a sprinkling of seasonal camps. But the north shore is undeveloped,  flanked by a rough path that runs under large hemlock and pine that logging crews somehow ignored.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife described it this way in 1999:


“This small pond is located in one of the most heavily populated areas of the state and yet its lightly developed shoreline gives it the appearance of a remote trout pond.”

Little has changed. The water’s too warm for trout, but there’s an active bass fishery. Motorized boats are banned from the pond, preserving the quiet.

Apse followed the trail to a ledge that juts out from shoreline. It’s her favorite spot on the property, she said. Standing under a small maple, looking out at the clear water, Apse said she can imagine an angler casting a line or a visitor enjoying a picnic.

It’s an image that will endure, 100 years from now.

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