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GOULDSBORO, Maine — Upper West Bay Pond doesn’t look like much on a map: just a small squiggle of blue and marshland a few miles from the big blue of the Atlantic.
But on those days when the ocean winds and waves made for turbulent or even treacherous kayaking, registered guide Jay Horschak would offer his clients the option of a peaceful paddle through the lily-lined waters of the pond.
So it was no mistake when Horschak took members of the Frenchman Bay Conservancy a number of years ago to the pond hidden in the Hancock County town of Gouldsboro.
Last Wednesday, Horschak and about a dozen board members and other supporters of the Frenchman Bay Conservancy once again were paddling Upper West Bay Pond, this time to explore and celebrate the property’s acquisition as part of a Bangor Hydro land swap.
“This vast boggy area, in addition to being good wildlife habitat, it is a filter for the bay,” said Tom Sidar, executive director of the conservancy, while taking a lunch break on the pond. “This is what keeps the bay clean. So the more of this area that can be protected, the better it is for the whole.”
Located between busy Route 1 and Route 183, the conservancy’s Upper West Bay Pond property is an example of the type of place — not uncommon in Down East Maine — where a visitor can feel like he is in the middle of nowhere when civilization is just a few minutes away.
The 576-acre property is by no means large by Maine conservation standards but is nonetheless a healthy size for coastal projects. The property includes much of the land on the pond’s western shore as well as part of the eastern shore. Private owners and timberland companies own the remaining shoreline, which features a single camp located near the southern boat launch off Guzzle Road.
The pond looks more like a slow-moving stream or river at times as it meanders through expanses of marsh grass and lily pads and past more than a half-dozen large beaver lodges.
It is also prime habitat for various duck species, a population of river otters, moose and enough winged critters to keep the birders on the paddling trip busy with their binoculars.
“It feels like you’re in northern Maine somewhere,” Sidar said as he looked out across the property.
Lisa Heyward, president of the organization’s board of directors, said the board recognizes that those 576 acres have been taken off the local tax rolls now that they are owned by a nonprofit.
That’s why the organization aims to protect land that is important ecologically — such as the role the West Bay Pond wetlands play in keeping the bay clean — and that can be enjoyed by the public in perpetuity.
The conservancy plans to keep the property open to paddlers, fishermen, hunters and other visitors.
“A big piece of our work is to make sure the land is open to the public and to do everything we can to encourage people to use it,” Heyward said.
Frenchman Bay Conservancy acquired the property as part of Bangor Hydro’s Downeast Reliability Project in which the company is building 43 miles of new transmission line between Ellsworth and Columbia Falls. Construction of the new transmission lines, which are intended to improve reliability and add capacity to the electric grid, is under way and is expected to be completed by the end of 2012.
The new transmission lines will pass through numerous wetlands, vernal pools and habitat for wading birds. So Bangor Hydro was required under state and federal guidelines to protect other wetlands through “compensatory mitigation.”
All told, Bangor Hydro donated more than 1,000 acres to the Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the Downeast Salmon Federation and the state of Maine for conservation purposes. The Upper West Bay Pond property is the largest of the group.
“While fulfilling the environmental requirements, we also wanted the outcome to be as beneficial to the Down East community as possible,” Bangor Hydro said in a written statement. “Bangor Hydro is very pleased to develop this important new transmission line to serve the Down East Region, while also working collaboratively with these excellent organizations to achieve environmental compliance in a meaningful way.”
Sidar, executive director of the Frenchman Bay Conservancy, said the organization began exploring the West Bay Pond property back in the 1990s after the visits with Herschak but nothing came of it. After negotiations began with Bangor Hydro in August 2010, the conservancy suggested the Gouldsboro land as a possible option.
Bangor Hydro then purchased the property from Camp Hills, a timber company, for an undisclosed sum and donated it to the conservancy. The deal closed in July.