by Steve Cartwright, staff writer
A woodsy, 320-acre property on the lower Kennebec River will remain forever undeveloped, thanks to a federal grant. It’s part of a larger scheme to protect the natural habitat of the entire estuary.
The Holt Forest, a privately held property on Arrowsic Island, will be placed under a conservation easement to keep it forever wild using an $803,200 grant from the Coastal Wetlands Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
When the deal is completed, it will create more than 1,000 acres of protected rare salt marsh and upland forest in the tidal Back River, which connects with the Kennebec below Bath.
The Holt family set up a foundation that has for many years allowed the University of Maine to use the land for forestry studies and research. But the land was not legally protected from future development.
Acquiring a conservation easement for Holt Forest is part of larger goal set by conservation groups — from local land trusts to The Nature Conservancy — to protect many thousands of acres in the Kennebec estuary. Some 13,000 acres already have been protected from development through easements and outright purchase.
“I think it’s critical. It’s a whole ecological system we’re looking at,” said Jack Witham, who has been the on-site director of the Holt Woodland Research Foundation since it was established in 1983.
Witham, who is president of the Lower Kennebec Regional Land Trust, said the challenge today is to think of conservation regionally, and form coalitions to seek grants and protect large tracts of land. “We need to rise above political boundaries to ecological boundaries,” he said.
Witham called the Holt Forest a “keystone parcel” in protection of the lower Kennebec estuary. He said that Bill and Winifred Holt began summering in the area in the 1930s, and one day they took a boat trip up the Back River and fell in love with the forest they later bought from a local farmer.
Bruce Kidman, spokesman for The Nature Conservancy in Brunswick, said he has stood with Witham at Holt Forest and gazed at the wetlands, thinking how they are a breeding area and source of food for fish and waterfowl. The salt marshes support striped bass, popular with sport fishermen, and two species listed as Endangered: Atlantic salmon and short- nosed sturgeon.
“When you live in a place, you start to take it for granted. We still have the opportunities to make an impact, to protect these resources that are long gone in other places.”>/p>
“It’s exciting to those of us who grew up in the area,” said Bill MacDonald, executive director of Maine Rivers, a statewide environmental advocacy group based in Hallowell. He said the Kennebec River is an important corridor for wildlife, from its headwaters at Moosehead Lake through four counties to the open sea in the Gulf of Maine.
“When you can go down to the river now and see a five-foot sturgeon, a three-foot striper — when these species are coming back — it’s a real, vibrant demonstration of what river restoration is all about, ” MacDonald said. He is a partner in the Kennebec River Initiative, an ongoing project to involve citizens in charting a course for the economic, cultural and environmental future of the entire waterway.
Josh Royte, a conservation planner with The Nature Conservancy, said the lower Kennebec estuary is a prime bald eagle nesting site, and that has contributed to eagle’s comeback in the region. “Virtually every species of waterfowl that migrates up and down the east coast flyway can be found using these marshes.”>/p>
With the purchase of development rights at Holt Forest, both university and public access will be assured, said Lois Winter, a biologist with the Fish & Wildlife Service in Falmouth. She called the waterfront parcel “spectacular,” and said “it’s long been on everybody’s radar screen for protection.” Without the easement, the Holt Forest could have been carved into pricey house lots and a vital link in wildlife protection would have been lost, she said.
“The pressure is great and the prices are rising astronomically on land here,” said Mary Jo Steiner, president of the Phippsburg Land Trust. It will become more and more difficult to conserve land unless we do it on a regional basis.”>/p>
Steiner said her group, founded in 1974, is joining forces with Bath-based Lower Kennebec River Land Trust, begun in 1989, to form the Kennebec Estuary Collaborative. Officials will begin interviewing candidates for an executive director next week. The advantage is a regional approach and the ability to compete for larger grants.
The Holt Forest’s inhabitants include spot short- eared owls, osprey and northern harriers. It’s also home to black ducks, wood ducks, greater and least scaups, little blue herons, snowy egrets, tricolored herons, American bitterns and yellow rails. Winter said the lower Kennebec is critical habitat for Atlantic salmon, striped bass, short-nosed and Atlantic sturgeon, alewives, blueback herring, rainbow smelt, tomcod and sea lamprey. She said it’s the only anadromous fish run in Maine with those combined species.
The conservation area is habitat for migratory and breeding birds such as Baltimore orioles, Blackburnian warblers, black-throated blue warblers, marsh wrens, Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrows, saltmarsh sharp- tailed sparrows, sedge wrens and wood thrush.
The presence of all this fish and bird life, some of it listed as rare and endangered, reveals a remarkable comeback for the Kennebec, which for years was polluted by mills and municipalities upriver, Winter said. She pointed out the Penobscot, Presumpscot and Androscoggin Rivers suffered years of pollution. “The whole state was built with its back turned to the water. These places where the paint would peel off your house and you’d get sick if you put your toe in the water,” she said, “are now desirable places to live.”>/p>
Winter said she hopes the lower Kennebec land protection effort will forestall what she called an onslaught of development. In her view, developing land is just as permanent as protecting it through conservation easement. “Our challenge is to try to protect the habitat before we lose it to development. We’re all about protecting fish, wildlife and people because they all go together.”>/p>
Protecting the lower Kennebec is a small part of saving the environment and of coping with the threat of global warming, she said.