Turning the Tide—Land&People

“The shore has a dual nature,” Rachel Carson wrote, “changing with the swing of the tides, belonging now to the land, now to the sea.” At Wells, Maine, a day-sail south of the harbor where Carson wrote The Edge of the Sea, the Merriland River enters an expanse of tidal wetlands, slows, and doubles back and forth, oxbow upon oxbow.

This is not Maine’s picture-postcard coastline of craggy granite standing firm against the pounding sea; that’s farther east. The state’s southern coast is softer, built of sand and gravel bulldozed here by Ice Age glaciers, and with each reversal, the Merriland River gnaws at its banks, collecting silicate souvenirs to be carried out to sea.

The wetlands that fill the Merriland River estuary, along with those of the Mousam, Kennebunk, Ogunquit, and other rivers that drain the mountains to the north and west, are partially protected as part of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is divided into ten units, strung like jewels from Kittery on the Maine-New Hampshire border through Cape Elizabeth, just south of Portland. Currently the refuge encompasses nearly 5,000 acres of protected coastal wildlife habitat, including significant wetlands.

Their adjacent uplands, however, remain largely at risk. When the refuge was first established, in 1966, the need to include uplands in the refuge boundary went largely unrecognized. So today, standing at an overlook at the Rachel Carson Refuge, we see not only the Merriland salt marsh, and perhaps a belted kingfisher or a great blue heron, but also a stark new house jutting from the bank across the way. The home, built on spec, is both a symbol and product of another sea change–sprawl–that threatens to overrun not only the Rachel Carson Refuge but all of south coastal Maine.

A Tenuous Refuge
“The first building sets the precedent, and then others follow,” says Debra Kimbrell-Anderson, the refuge’s deputy manager. “If that house were not there”–she points to the white house across the way–“there would be no septic tank, no lawn fertilizer, no car drippings on the driveway, no roof runoff, no dogs running free. . . .” Kimbrell-Anderson tallies the problems caused by development of the immediate uplands. “We are losing the critical buffer at the wetland’s edge.”

Left unsaid is that the house itself is at risk. Just behind us, part of the refuge’s wheelchair-accessible trail had to be relocated after a huge chunk of pine-forested upland ledge, undercut by an oxbow, simply sloughed off and fell into the river, taking the trail with it. “There is tremendous development pressure here to allow creative structures–houses on pillars–with the tidal flow beneath them, in essence flushing their basements into the watershed,” Kimbrell-Anderson adds. And indeed, the Trust for Public Land is presently working with the refuge to protect 72 acres at Goose Rocks Corner, where a subdivision is planned on a tract crisscrossed by wetlands.

The refuge supports an incredible diversity of wildlife. There are 47 known mammal species, from mink and ermine to moose and black bear, and 35 reptile and amphibian species, including half a dozen endangered or threatened turtles. And it is a birder’s paradise. Songbird residents are joined by shorebird migrations in spring and summer, waterfowl concentrations in winter and early spring, and raptor migrations in early fall. In all, some 250 species, including the endangered piping plover, peregrine falcon, and least and roseate terns, are refuge regulars.

But their habitat is tenuous. With its ten separate units, the refuge has a circuitous boundary and a lot more neighbors than most preserves. All this development has countless consequences. “People want a better view, so they will cut brush and trees in the refuge,” Kimbrell-Anderson says. “We find our boundary signs missing, and then we find lawns and gardens extending into the refuge.”

Not all impact is so obvious. Development redirects the flow of water. The salinity of the marsh is reduced, causing invasive plants such as phragmites and purple loosestrife to displace the native cattail. While native plants such as cattail are richly supportive of wildlife, a field of phragmites reeds is as barren as the driest desert. The carving-up of the countryside has communities scrambling to protect spaces at imminent risk, while working longer term to inventory open space and secure funding for land preservation. The Trust for Public Land, long active on all three fronts, recently opened a Maine field office to increase its ability to help. “The irony,” says Project Manager Jennifer Melville, “is that for all its open space, Maine ranks nearly last in the percentage of publicly owned land.”

The Price Paid for Sprawl
The issue of sprawl at first seems oxymoronic here. Maine’s land mass is equal to that of the five other New England states combined, while its population is less than a quarter of Boston’s. But increasingly when the people of Boston, barely an hour’s drive south of the Maine border, seek a “getaway,” they get away to Maine’s coast and lakes. So do a lot of others; a recent New York Times story, “Second-Home Buyers Go Longer Distances,” featured a home belonging to the chancellor of New York City schools. The chancellor’s retreat is located in Greenwood, Maine, some 400 miles from Manhattan.

The influx of “people from away,” as the locals refer to out-of-staters, is just part of the pressure that is driving sprawl up Maine’s southern coast. People are simply spreading out. While the state’s population, 1.2 million, has grown less than 1 percent a year over the past three decades, residential land use increased nearly 150 percent during the same period, resulting in what a report by the Maine State Planning Office called “unanticipated and unintended consequences.”

The consequences start with economic costs. Maine taxpayers have had to spend $300 million building new classrooms in rural and suburban areas, even as the state’s total school population has gone down. Meanwhile, the shrinking urban populations–often elderly and poor–are hard-pressed to maintain existing facilities. Portland’s historic St. Dominic’s Church, its neighborhood population cut by half, is being closed even as the Roman Catholic Diocese is building new churches in the surrounding suburban ring.

Then there are livelihood issues. With shoreline proximity at a premium, fishermen find they no longer can afford to live by the sea. And with cleared land easiest to develop, farmers find their fields sprouting houses–two-thirds of new development in Maine’s southernmost counties occurred on prime agricultural land.

Finally, in this state which trades heavily on its pristine environment, there are environmental consequences. Sprawl brings fragmentation–reducing the countryside to islands of open space too small to support wildlife’s foraging–and it brings pollution. “In part because of the added vehicle miles being driven every day, southern Maine’s air exceeds federal standards for the hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides that cook in the summertime to become smog,” says Evan Richert, director of the Maine State Planning Office.

Calling in his inaugural address last year for a “great public discussion” of the issue of sprawl, Governor Angus King called it a price paid in terms of quality of life. “How much do any of us gain,” he asked, “if we’re richer in money and poorer in spirit, poorer in the things that make Maine the special place that it has been for so many years?”

Funds for Maine’s Future
Maine’s voters seem to agree. In 1987 they approved a referendum establishing a $35 million Land for Maine’s Future program to acquire land for open space and recreation. In the following decade, more than 65,000 acres were protected. When the fund was depleted last year, a consortium of conservation and outdoors groups, supported by businesses dependent on outdoor recreation, rallied to campaign for a $50- million bond referendum to replenish it. TPL joined The Nature Conservancy and Maine Coast Heritage Trust in helping to staff and fund the campaign. Outdoor retailer L. L. Bean jump-started the campaign funding, mounted a major display at its Freeport headquarters, and played a high-profile leadership role throughout. The November vote was not even close; the referendum passed in every county, and overall the approval margin was better than two to one.

Even as the bond campaign unfolded, TPL was working to protect land for which time was running out. In one of its most visible projects, TPL purchased and held the privately owned Scarborough Beach State Park. Scarborough Beach is 1,800 gently curving feet of glistening white sand backed by barrier dunes, a 15-acre salt pond, and teeming marshlands. The beach, just a short drive from Portland, attracts more than 60,000 people a year. And for some 80 years, it had been the private property of one family, with Maine leasing it as a state park. “My great-grandfather had an interest in conserving the beach and keeping it in its pristine state,” says Seth Sprague, “and essentially the family has been involved in doing just that ever since.” The Spragues didn’t want the beach developed, but they did want to sell it. They offered the land to the state, but Maine, its land acquisition coffers empty, was powerless to act. In stepped TPL, purchasing 62 acres and holding the land until the state could arrange financing.

“Saving Scarborough Beach clearly illustrated the benefits of the Land for Maine’s Future bond to the voters,” Governor King says. “It played a key role in gaining passage of the $50-million bond, and it would not have happened without the leadership of TPL.”

Mapping the Watershed
Even with the bond act approved, resources are limited; one of the problems is knowing just which property to protect. At Laudholm Farm, next door to the Rachel Carson Refuge headquarters, the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve is undertaking what it calls the Coastal Mosaic Project, a program designed to develop region-wide conservation plans and strategies. The name comes from the map created when land use is plotted; open space in southern Maine shows up like random green tiles scattered in a large mosaic. Eighteen local land trusts, conservation commissions, and environmental organizations are working with the reserve to connect existing open space and protect water quality.

“We are taking a watershed approach to conservation,” says Reserve Director Kent Kirkpatrick, “to help communities develop proactive conservation strategies across political boundaries. The quality of the salt marsh at the bottom of the watershed depends on what happens upstream.” Adds Reserve Volunteer Coordinator Nancy Bayse, “We should not be operating in a vacuum in making land preservation decisions. Sometimes a great-looking piece of land may not be the most important in the biological or ecological sense.” The Coastal Mosaic Project will help conservationists better evaluate properties that come on the market as well as identify critical tracts in need of protection.

The reserve knows firsthand the threat posed by sprawl. Its home is a saltwater farm dating back to the 1640s. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Laudholm Farm has been carefully restored–its buildings now house the reserve’s research laboratory and offices as well as classrooms, exhibit space, and a public auditorium. The reserve operates on 1,600 acres of federal, state, town, and private land and includes saltwater marshes, estuaries, woodlands, meadows, and ocean beach. Yet the meadow flanking the roadway to its farmstead has sprouted two new houses, and the reserve risks losing its view of the sea should two privately held properties within its boundaries be lost to development.

The trails at both the Wells Reserve and the Rachel Carson Refuge attract a steady flow of birdwatchers and hikers, but perhaps their greatest impact is on children. At the refuge, overlooking the Merriland River, we run into a group of chattering kindergarteners. “We’ve brought 160 kids here in the past two days,” says teacher Ellen Barter. “We combined a unit on habitat with one on the five senses. The children are recording all the things we saw, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted.” (“Tasted,” she quickly adds, is covered by snacks!)

“Education is important to every wildlife refuge, but it’s especially appropriate here,” says Refuge Manager Ward Feurt. Rachel Carson’s courageous book Silent Spring, which publicized the deadly effects of DDT and other pesticides on birds and other wildlife, is credited with inspiring the environmental movement in America. “Carson’s ecological message was that all life is interdependent,” Feurt says. “We need to keep teaching that message here; we also need to act on it.”

Land & People, Spring, 2000

Richard M. Stapleton is a sailor, gardener, and freelance journalist living in New Jersey.