The state capitol is Maine’s most notable landmark. Designed by renowned architect Charles Bulfinch and constructed of Hallowell granite, the capitol was completed in 1832, shortly after Augusta was named Maine’s capital. Among the eight towns and cities contending to become the capital city, Augusta was the only one that could provide a building site graced by two imposing natural features — the Kennebec River and Howard Hill — and it was for that reason the legislative committee charged with locating the seat of Maine’s government chose Augusta.
Today, nearly 200 years later, the wisdom of that decision is apparent. Every day, visitors and residents alike enjoy the scenic view of the State House with Howard Hill’s conifer and deciduous forests in the background, a view that, in many ways, symbolizes the deep connection between Maine people and the land.
The Kennebec Land Trust, which has conserved 62 properties in 21 towns, wants to keep it that way. Working in cooperation with the city of Augusta, the trust is raising funds to purchase and permanently conserve the 164-acre Howard Hill property. With support from many private businesses, foundations, individual donors and the Land for Maine’s Future Program, the trust has raised more than 60 percent of the funds needed to conserve this valuable property.
However, the Howard Hill project has been in jeopardy because of Gov. Paul LePage’s decision not to release the Land for Maine’s Future bonds. Our land trust will need to take out a loan to replace the funds that were awarded to the trust from the LMF program in July 2014.
In addition, our land trust still needs to raise another $450,000 by the Oct. 1 Howard Hill closing date. Already, $150,000 has been committed as a challenge grant by a generous donor who would match other gifts, dollar for dollar, to ensure this important property with the possibilities of scenic lookouts, trails connecting to the popular Kennebec River Rail Trail, a demonstration site for sustainable forestry, an outdoor classroom for natural and local history, outdoor recreation programs and habitat for wildlife becomes a reality for Mainers to enjoy today and for generations.
Howard Hill formerly was owned by William Howard Gannett, who managed it as a nature and game preserve, which led to several efforts by the Legislature and state agencies to protect this landscape. None succeeded, and the property ultimately was slated for development as a 55-lot subdivision. Kennebec Land Trust wants to assure the land, part of Maine’s natural heritage, will never be developed and instead be conserved forever.
While Howard Hill is known as the scenic backdrop to the State House, it is much more than that. It is a large and diverse natural area in the middle of Augusta, our state capital. Its varied environment includes a cascading stream, steep ravines, large boulders, an expansive ridgeline with sheer cliffs and diverse wildlife habitat. The property is crisscrossed by an informal network of old carriage roads and woods roads that provide expansive views over the State House and the Kennebec River valley.
If our campaign is successful, the city of Augusta will take ownership of the land with the Kennebec Land Trust retaining a conservation easement ensuring its perpetual protection. Howard Hill is a key component of a citywide greenbelt envisioned in Augusta’s comprehensive plan.
The Howard Hill campaign is a remarkable opportunity for every citizen of Maine to take part in a significant land conservation effort. We need donations to close on the Howard Hill property by October. Information, including a video and interviews featuring Augusta residents’ memories of exploring Howard Hill, is available on the trust’s website at tklt.org. You also can visit Howard Hill on upcoming field trips on Sept. 12 and Sept. 26.
Brian Kent is the president of Kennebec Land Trust and Theresa Kerchner is executive director.