MACHIAS, Maine — “I stand for what I stand on.”
That’s how Alan Brooks summarizes his 30-plus years of actively conserving miles of shoreline and thousands of acres of Down East headlands, farms, woodlands and marshes throughout Washington County. It’s a simple philosophy that Brooks says he shares with its originator — author and farmer Wendell Berry, a living icon of land conservation values.
Over the past 25 years, Brooks has been a driving force behind the Machias-based Downeast Coastal Conservancy, most recently serving as the nonprofit’s stewardship director before his recent retirement at age 65.
“My career has been grounded in the belief that people need to stand for the places that they know and love best,” he said. “They have to ensure that the qualities of these places they value are available to their children, to their grandchildren and to future generations.”
At age 24, Brooks began what would be seven years of hands-on land conservation management efforts in England. He came to Maine in 1980, bringing with him from his native Massachusetts an infectious passion for preserving what he considers some the last, best places along the New England coastline. Working then from their kitchen table in Lubec, Brooks and his partner, Nancy Nielsen, gave birth in 1987 to the Quoddy Regional Land Trust. He says he will never forget the day when a supporter handed over a $20 bill, the newborn trust’s first contribution of many, including one anonymous gift of $100,000.
By the time Quoddy merged with the Milbridge-based Great Auk Land Trust in 2009 to create the Downeast Coastal Conservancy, its land trust strategies in Washington County had preserved 22 miles of shoreline and 2,841 acres — 2,013 acres through easement, the remaining 828 by ownership.
“The impetus for the merger was that we both lacked the capacity to do the kind of larger-scale efforts required for landscape protection between Steuben and Calais,” he said.
At last count, the 650-member Downeast Coastal Conservancy and its staff of three had preserved 5,800 acres in Washington County and 55 miles of saltwater and freshwater shoreline. The organization’s current annual budget is $215,000, which includes funds used to pay property taxes and cover property management expenses. The group last week remained $99,000 short of its “Two Rivers Campaign” goal of $1.9 million, money to be used to protect and manage a mix of properties along the Machias and Middle rivers.
“I’ve always had the sense that there are things here of national importance, like Cobscook and Pleasant bays, which are relatively undeveloped and unfragmented and are environmentally valuable and significant bird habitats,” Brooks said. “And there are five rivers in southern Washington County that provide salmon habitat. There’s also the scenic values of the islands and the headlands of the Bold Coast region. Also needing protection is shore access for clammers and wormers and access to local beauty spots.
“It’s very unusual in this country to still have towns and communities and villages that are environmentally connected to the land and other natural resources. Washington County has been missed by huge development projects that have overwhelmed other areas. Everybody says we need jobs here, but, when you get below the surface, they don’t want things to change too much. I think if change is slow enough, people will stay here, although I’m very doubtful we will ever again see the days when high school kids grabbed blueberry rakes to earn a little money for school clothes.”
To some degree, Brooks feels, Washington County’s less-than-robust economy is a blessing in disguise.
“Times are seldom great here, economically,” he says. “But it’s better than other places prone to boom-or-bust cycles or are dominated by one really prominent industry that is subject to cutting jobs during recessions.”
Brooks said local connectivity to the land and sea was greatly undermined between the early 1970s, when 90 percent of Washington County’s “Bold Coast” area between Cutler and Lubec was locally owned, and the late 1980s, when 90 percent belonged to owners who lived as far away as Hong Kong.
“That land base change brought ‘keep out’ signs and gated communities,” he said. “In the early 1980s, there were a lot of speculative land transactions that increased town valuations while reducing state subsidies. Local people began losing their ability to connect with the land due to this larger economy. The law requires that land be assessed at fair market value, and local people found themselves being taxed from their land. While they wanted to pass it on to their children, they couldn’t afford the taxes.”
Brooks said he will also never forget a comment made by a woman who, despite her limited means, was deeply grounded in her sense of place.
“She was from a low-income background and said to me, ‘Until we went to our favorite picnic spot and found a chain across the road, we never felt poor.’”
Reflecting on his more than 30 years on the front lines of local conservation, Brooks seems content with what he and others involved have accomplished.
“I would like to have been able to do more,” he said. “But, considering where we started, when the land trust model was new, I think we’ve done some remarkable things, and we did that by getting ahead of development. I think over the next 30 years there will be the potential to knit together conserved lands in ways that strengthen the governmental and community framework that exists here.”