Living in a land of abundant water, woods and beauty, it is easy for residents of northern Maine to take their natural resources for granted. We casually walk, ski and ride from our back yards into pristine areas many people from elsewhere must travel miles to reach.
It’s hard to imagine that such access could vanish, but it has in many places, sometimes quickly, as ownership of and attitudes toward the land change.
It takes people with vision to assure that future generations will have access to recreational opportunities we enjoy today. Towns seeking to protect their natural resources while enhancing outdoor public recreational activities might consider recent accomplishments of the Van Buren Water District as a model.
Water District Manager Skip Dumais and his three-member board of trustees have crafted a plan to protect an important watershed around Violette Brook, a tributary of the St. John River. The quasi-municipal, publicly regulated water district has donated a conservation easement on 333 acres in Cyr Plantation to the Forest Society of Maine. The property surrounds a reservoir that once served as the water supply for Van Buren and now provides reserve water for the town of 2,000.
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement to preserve land for specific uses, with terms that apply to all future owners of the land.
“The Water District wanted to ensure that the public benefits provided by this property would be protected for future generations,” Craig Troeger, clerk of the water district, told the Forest Society of Maine. He called the forests, streams and wetlands around the reservoir “a gem of a recreation area easily accessible to residents.”
In his 20 years as water district manager, Dumais has seen a popular trail system evolve from trails originally built for access to maintain the dam at the reservoir. His names for the trails and landmarks identify their distinguishing features: Split Cedar Trail, Coyote Loop, White Hawk Loop, Snow Hog Race Trail, Heron Point and Moose Bridge.
Covering about 23 kilometers, the 10-foot-wide trails connect to a trail into town and have been used by cross-country skiers, hikers, birders, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles.
“Things fell into place in little pieces,” Dumais said, explaining that high school students working as summer interns laid out many of the trails.
The Violette Brook watershed also is popular for hunting, fishing, kayaking and canoeing. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has identified high quality brook trout habitat on the property, which is also home to waterfowl and wading birds.
“Maine is known for its pristine brook trout fisheries,” Troeger said, as he drove me from place to place within the protected property. “This is a unique watershed.”
In order to complete the easement process, the water district and the Forest Society of Maine submitted successful grant applications to the Maine Natural Resources Conservation Program, the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, the John Sage Foundation and the Aroostook County Fund of the Maine Community Foundation. The funding covered costs such as baseline documentation, a stewardship endowment, legal fees, construction estimates and wetlands mitigation.
“Thanks to grant support from the Maine Natural Resources Conservation Program, the Violette Brook forest may also become a model for future watershed improvements and protections in Aroostook County,” said a Forest Society of Maine newsletter.
The conservation program application required an ecological assessment by the Maine Natural Areas Program, which identified significant wetland habitats, but also located two culverts that impaired stream flow and fish passage. As a result, state-of-the-art bottomless culverts will be installed to normalize stream flow and restore fish passage. Conservation program funds also will support the rerouting of a trail to reduce erosion and subsequent sedimentation in Violette Brook, work yet to be completed on the site.
“As climate changes, water is going to be precious, and we have a lot of it,” Troeger said. “Attitudes will change toward special places.”
Stressing the importance of “landscape connectivity” as climate zones change, Troeger said the water district is pleased to be part of a growing aggregation of smaller projects to accomplish a larger goal. “There is a lot of momentum for taking a larger view of the landscape.”
Troeger and Dumais agree that the future of the land depends upon young people.
“They need to throw away their electronics and get outside,” Dumais said. “We need to build a membership team that will continue after we are gone.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.