VINALHAVEN, Maine — The area known as The Basin is a short drive or bike ride from the village shops, traditional island homes and working waterfront along Vinalhaven’s downtown strip.
But staring out over The Basin’s calm waters and surrounding dark green hillsides, it’s easy to forget that Maine’s largest year-round island town is just a few minutes away.
In fact, it is easy let the lapping waves, clear waters, circling eagles and other wildlife of this sheltered cove completely take over your thoughts for a spell.
“You see other places like this but they are not going to be like this forever, and this one is,” Betsy Ham with Maine Coast Heritage Trust said while standing inside The Basin one September afternoon.
Maine’s vast undeveloped, inland forests lend themselves to massive conservation deals involving hundreds of thousands of acres, often with just one or two landowners. Such large conservation deals rightfully garner plenty of attention from the press and the public.
Land preservation efforts along Maine’s coast are normally modest by comparison in terms of total acreage. But many Mainers would argue that preserving their state’s iconic coastline is no less important — and is oftentimes more difficult because of higher land values and more landowners.
The Basin on Vinalhaven’s southwestern coast is, in many ways, a model of these differences.
The first conservation deal in The Basin in 1986 protected about 70 acres. The second project, three years later, added 40 acres but also nearly a mile of shorefront. In both 1996 and 1997, land deals were negotiated each involving just 1 acre.
And so it has gone for the past 22 years for Vinalhaven Land Trust and Maine Coast Heritage Trust: gradually stitching together a protective envelope around this tidal inlet of Penobscot Bay one property at a time.
Fifteen parcels later, nearly all of the roughly 7 miles of shorefront has been permanently protected through either conservation easements or outright land sales to the two groups.
“It’s been a long process but a very dedicated process,” Lucy McCarthy, Vinalhaven Land Trust’s executive director, said while standing in the organization’s modest building near downtown.
McCarthy, who is one of Vinalhaven’s roughly 1,200 year-round residents, said The Basin is a popular place for locals to kayak, hike, hunt and picnic. A few commercial and recreational fishermen also ply the waters, but the two reversing falls that provide access to The Basin are tricky to navigate for boaters unfamiliar with the area.
The Basin is sheltered on the western side by several large islands and on the eastern side by rolling hills. Those land masses and the two, small reversing falls ensure that the water inside The Basin remains relatively calm even when the nearby bay is windy and choppy.
McCarthy and Ham, who is the project manager for MCHT, led a hike that day into The Basin through the most recent acquisition: a 44-acre preserve owned by the Strawson family.
Ham said 17 members of the Strawson family who share ownership all agreed to sell the property below market value because they wanted to protect the land. The proceeds also will allow the family to keep a nearby house that has been in the family for several generations.
“It was really wonderful to see something like this come together,” said Ham, who pointed out that the project received several grants.
A network of small trails leads to The Basin through an airy forest dominated by large, moss-covered hunks of granite. Those trails weave among enormous, amphitheater-size holes left by skilled workers who were part of a vibrant local industry that supplied Vinalhaven granite to major landmarks, including New York’s Brooklyn Bridge and Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
At times, the lush forest, giant slabs of granite and thick mats of moss that pad every step make The Basin’s forest border feel like something out of a Tolkein story. But eventually the forest opens up into grassy, boulder-strewn wetlands that support a wide variety of shorebirds and waterfowl.
Eagles feed regularly in The Basin, as evidenced by the three circling overhead this particular day. And the cold, clear waters support a wide variety of wildlife, including seals and recently a mother porpoise and her offspring.
“I think the key word for conservation of this scale locally is patience,” McCarthy said.
Vinalhaven Land Trust and MCHT have protected more than 1,000 acres around The Basin at a cost of roughly $1.5 million. Both organizations also have preserved other tracts on the island of Vinalhaven, and MCHT has helped conserve roughly 275 coastal islands in recent decades.
Margorie Stratton, town manager of Vinalhaven, said there is always controversy when conservation groups purchase land because it is then taken off of the tax rolls. But both Vinalhaven Land Trust and MCHT have made payments to the town in lieu of taxes.
Vinalhaven’s Board of Selectman also wrote a letter in support of the grants that were awarded to the most recent property.
Rich Knox, spokesman for MCHT, said his organization partners with local land trusts such as Vinalhaven’s because their members have the relationships and connections to make things happen. MCHT, meanwhile, brings additional resources and conservation know-how to the equation.
“These kinds of property are bought pretty quickly [on the market], so it’s not as if we didn’t do something it would stay undeveloped,” Knox said.