KENNEBUNK, Maine — Some residents are outraged over town officials’ plans to remove what could be ancient tree roots from Gooch’s Beach, saying they pose a threat to beachgoers.
After news broke of the possible work being done to the tree stumps, believed by some to be more than 3,000 years old, social media sites lit up, with residents expressing anger that something so historical might be destroyed and concern that the remnants of local shipwrecks, also exposed in recent months by heavy storms, could be next. Facebook postings about the possible removal of the tree stumps generated a couple hundred replies, the majority advocating to keep the stumps.
“If they weren’t a problem for all those years, why are they one now?” asked one Kennebunk native.
The town has been granted permission from the Department of Environmental Protection to remove any areas where a tree’s exposure may cause safety issues, a DEP official said Tuesday.
Mike Mullen, licensing and enforcement coordinator with the DEP’s Division of Land Resource Regulation, said removal of debris from a beach, where little or no sand is removed, is allowed within the department’s regulations and does not require permitting.
“Our staff has already instructed the town that they can remove those stumps and what I understand they plan to do is to dig around them, cut them and not try to lift out the whole root system,” he said, adding that sand will be used to fill in afterwards.
The possible historical value of the trees does not change the approach, Mullen said.
“It might be very interesting and all, but from a regulatory perspective it doesn’t have any bearing,” he said.
Town officials say the safety hazard the stumps present has to be dealt with, even if it means removing something that generations of Kennebunk natives have taken for granted.
“Whatever can remain will remain. From my perspective, it’s a safety issue that I want to address,” said Town Manager Barry Tibbetts, adding that there are areas where tree trunks have been left jagged and ripped. “I don’t think anyone wants someone to get hurt and I think we all want to preserve what we can. We just need to find that balance.”
Arundel resident Hugh Spiers, whose family has had a house at Kennebunk Beach since 1961, said he was “absolutely stunned” by the thought that the roots and stumps, which he called a “geological treasure,” could be touched.
“I want to know why there is no sequel to [the movie] ‘Jaws,’ called ‘Stumps,’” Spiers said sarcastically. “These things have been there for thousands and thousands of years and suddenly it’s a problem? That’s insane to me.”
Spiers said he has seen the stumps show up before and said they are always covered back up naturally, with sand being deposited from the ocean back onto the beach in the spring.
“Beaches are a dynamic environment. They go back and forth,” he said. “As the seasons change, the wave actions change. A gentler wave action comes, sand comes back onto the beach. I’ve spent almost 50 years on Mother’s Beach. It’s part of how that environment works. I think this month these will all be covered up.
“Sand will move offshore and onshore over the course of the year, and yes, a lot of times in the winter sand is moved offshore but it often comes back again,” he said. “There is some dynamic there. What we understand is being proposed is to do this work by hand and it’s quite possible there will be more sand moved up on the beach over the course of the summer.”
Tibbetts said the town’s crews will work with the tide and that a large tree stump that came onto the beach with the tide is the only piece to have been removed from the area so far. The stump was relocated to a safer area of the beach.
“Under state law I can take it up and push it off to the side on the rocks,” he said. “That’s what we did. We got it out of the way for safety reasons and that’s perfectly acceptable. We haven’t done anything wrong.”
The historical nature of the trees has not been determined, Tibbetts said, though a study of similar trees in Wells found the trees were more than 3,000 years old. No study has been conducted in Kennebunk to confirm the age of the local trees, Tibbetts said.
According to a March article for the Star by historian Sharon Cummins, “Similar roots and stumps hide under the sand at Wells Beach. Radiocarbon dating performed on those in 1959 by geologist Arthur M. Hussey indicates that about 3,000 years ago, the white pine trees were growing in a wooded upland. They were gradually drowned by the rising sea level.”
Cummins said this week that she is “heartsick about these trees.”
“These are not just some old trees,” she said.
Remnants of a shipwreck have also been exposed on Mother’s Beach, which Tibbetts said has not been touched, but could also pose a safety risk in the future. He will be in touch with the state historian, he said, to look at options.
“We’re not going to do anything with that as of yet,” Tibbetts said. “The boat kind of sits where the sand starts to slope up on the beach and clearly on one side of it, if you swim in that area, you can get hurt. It doesn’t mean it needs to come out, I just don’t know the answer yet.”
According to Cummins, that wreck was tentatively identified by historian and author Edward Rowe Snow after a March storm. Cummins said Snow theorized that the wreck was the remains of a coasting packet, the Industry, built in 1770 by Irish shipbuilders in St. George. The ship was lost on her maiden voyage.
Spiers said he had never seen the shipwreck on Mother’s Beach appear until three or four years ago.
“Now they will want to remove it,” he asked. “To want to remove something like that is stunning. Why would you even entertain it?”
Another wreck is located on Gooch’s Beach, and was exposed by recent storms.
According to Cummins, longtime residents said they remember the same old wreck being briefly uncovered several times in the last 75 years. The wreck is believed to be either the 139-ton brig Merchant, stranded in 1820 on a sandbar, or the 160-ton brig Columbia, which sank in 1818.