GUEST COLUMN

Love the land, respect the landowner

Posted May 10, 2011, at 8:59 p.m.

Should a land trust deny the building of forts by children? David Sobel’s guest column, “Learning to love the land” (BDN, April 21), makes a case that land trusts need to encourage children to build forts, construct fairy houses and secret paths, and collect salamander eggs on conservation properties. He wants to see children grow into land stewards based on their “wild play” in land trust properties. I agree that we need to provide even more opportunities for children to be outdoors, but I’m unconvinced of the appropriateness of certain play activities on conservation properties.

Blatant disregard for rules could lead to loss of access. Instead, we should appreciate all that land trusts do in our communities and support them much more. Although I like to see kids build forts, construction activities should be on private property, in the backyard, or elsewhere by permission, but not on conservation lands.

Maine has an enviable record of grassroots land conservation, with almost 100 land trusts. This is far ahead of many other states. Maine people have worked together to identify important parcels that are available, to raise money and protect key properties. The landowner — the trust — decides which uses will be allowed on a given property. Far from locking up the land, land trusts make available properties that most people would not have access to otherwise, and trusts seek to do so in a safe and sustainable way.

Many people are concerned that children today are indoors too much, where they enjoy screen time but miss out on fresh air, fun, exercise, and hearing the birds sing. Realistically, if the land trust allowed some fort-building along the shore, then how much is too much?

Following typical monkey-see monkey-do behavior, if one fort is built, then other people come along and decide to build a second fort, and so it goes. Then we’ve got a neighborhood of forts that has become a distraction and an eyesore to those who want to teach kids to appreciate nature using a light-handed approach. The scale of fairy house construction on another coastal island is testimony to the scourge this can become.

A better way to direct kid-energy along a protected shore would be to pick up the flotsam. Or involve the kids in cutting down invasive plants. These are more appropriate training for a future land steward and are good exercise, too.

There are many aspects to land management that are not obvious when a visitor comes onto a land trust property. A trust might be legally obligated to meet donor expectations regarding a piece of property. Sensitive features such as bird nesting habitat at the shore, or rare plants or a vernal pool could be on the property. Dangers such as cliff faces could be present. Expensive scientific research could be underway.

The land trust establishes limits on recreational uses based on a management plan. Uncontrolled recreational access can quickly decimate some valuable feature, or too many trails can lead to loss of the remoteness that many people value when hiking. Someone has to set limits.

Yes, we want to bring children into natural environments and help them develop their lifelong link to a landscape that includes wildness. Those same children are the future voters who will value open space and keep laws in place that favor funding of parks and the work of the land trust movement.

Let’s teach children that when visiting a park or land trust property, we do want to read the rules of use for visitors, comply, and even go beyond by bringing a bag to gather stray trash. It’s fun to walk quietly so that we might see wildlife, take pictures and leave footprints, and we can practice Leave No Trace.

So, do build that fort, but build it in the back yard — not on a conservation property.

Alison C. Dibble of Brooklin is a former board member of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust. She prepares natural resource inventories for land trusts and parks through her consulting firm, Stewards LLC.

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