Let’s work together to secure as much access to these places as we can while we have the chance.
By Tim Glidden, president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust in Topsham
Portland Press Herald op-ed
TOPSHAM — The Press Herald’s recent editorial “Our View: Court ruling on Harpswell beach access shows need for public land” offers an opportunity to reflect on a critical issue along the Maine coast and throughout our state.
With each passing year, more and more private land in Maine becomes closed to public access. Our farms, forests, sledding hills, clam flats, fishing holes, beaches, hunting spots, mountain trails, ponds, islands, community garden plots, waterfalls and other treasures remain vulnerable to “no trespassing” signs.
This limits opportunities for recreation, hunting, harvesting and other outdoor traditions enjoyed by generations of Mainers and visitors to Maine, and it can hurt our economy. All of these losses hurt our communities.
The recent Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision that overturned a lower court ruling giving the public access to Cedar Beach on Bailey Island is the latest in a long series of complex cases pitting landowners’ rights against traditional access to the land.
While Maine has a tradition of “presumptive permission” to use private land as long as the property isn’t posted, the high court’s decision affirms that, except in rare circumstances, ultimately the rights to control or grant access to the land rest with the landowner. Regardless of the merits of this particular case, one thing is crystal clear: There is a real and ongoing need to protect permanent public access to Maine’s waters and lands.
Permanent land conservation (through acquisition or conservation easement) offers an opportunity to address public access issues, and Maine’s land trust movement has a proud history of securing permanent public access at popular destinations throughout the state.
For example, the Downeast Lakes Land Trust has been successful in securing permanent public access to vital resources in and around the community of Grand Lake Stream. In addition to recreational benefits, this keeps the hunting, fishing, and forest economy of the region strong. On a smaller scale, in Lewiston/Auburn, the Androscoggin Land Trust has worked with state agencies and other partners to create several “pocket parks” that allow for river access, as well as educational and cultural events.
On Deer Isle, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust worked with local citizens to conserve a small beach that serves as a public park, and gives fishermen a place to launch and work on boats (the only public place in town to do so).
In all of these examples, the land was at risk of being lost to the public forever. These places, and hundreds more like them, make up an important part of the fabric of our state and are critical to the livelihood and enjoyment of thousands of Mainers.
Underlying Maine’s public access success stories are a few key ingredients, including conservation-minded landowners, demonstrated community need and generous local support based on trust and respect.
In many cases, public funding, such as the state’s very successful Land for Maine’s Future program, is also critical to helping to stimulate permanent land conservation. Land trusts play a unique and essential role in identifying and facilitating all of these elements over time. It isn’t easy, but with hard work, persistence and patience, public access can be permanently secured.
While disappointing to some, the recent state supreme court decision need not be the end of the story for securing public access at beaches or other favorite community destinations. In fact, it could be used as a much-needed wake-up call – a call to reach out to neighbors, a call to build trust, a call to think creatively, a call to build community. Maine’s land trusts are here to answer that call.
In this era of hunkering down inside to pass the time with YouTube, Netflix and Snapchat, it seems more important than ever to get out and experience as much of Maine as we can. We choose to live here because of the incredible natural assets our state affords. Let’s work together to secure as much access to these places as we can, while we still have the chance. In the words of Joni Mitchell: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”