On the first day of her retirement Judy Berk climbed the trail up Maiden’s Cliff in Camden and took in the view overlooking Megunticook Lake.
“There were people skating on the lake and riding on those ice boats — you know, those sail boats that go in the ice?” Berk said. “Can you imagine? All those people just out enjoying the Maine outdoors on a winter day.”
After 28 years handling communications for The Natural Resource Council of Maine, Berk stepped down effective Jan. 1. She’s now looking forward to enjoying the Maine outdoors that she’s helped protect for nearly three decades.
Connecting issues to the people
Berk has been on the frontlines with the NRCM as she monitored, analysed and interpreted hundreds of environmental issues in Maine.
“It was my job every day to look at the issues and then get the information out to the people who most needed it,” Berk said.
The Maine Legislature preparing to take up a bill impacting the state’s outdoors? It was Berk who prepared succinct action alerts on Legislative committee hearing times, key talking points and issue summaries and blasted them out to concerned citizens.
Members of the Maine media needing to connect with any one of the more than 20,000 NRCM members for comments on a natural resource story? It was Berk who would match the journalist to the best sources.
The NRCM set to release a policy statement on pending environmental laws in Maine? It was Berk who assisted with the wording and assured it got into the hands of politicians and committee members.
“Judy Berk has been an institution at NRCM,” said Lisa Pohlmann, NRCM chief executive officer. “Her enthusiasm for the issues, her responsiveness to colleagues and her incredibly warm and fun personality have made her the go-to person for the media on environmental issues for over two decades.”
Protecting Maine’s heritage
Working at the NRCM has left Berk feeling like she has helped Maine preserve and recapture some of its environmental heritage, whether it was working on removing dams along the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers or helping to establish the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument
Berk recalled having tears in her eyes as she watched the dismantling of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River, allowing the river’s waters — and the aquatic species it supports — free access to the ocean for the first time in 165 years.
Much of the good work that is done by the NCRM, Berk said, is because the council draws so many people from different parts of Maine together including activists, scientists, sports, students, businesspeople and church groups.
“It’s kind of cliche, but never underestimate what a group of citizens can do working together,” she said. “I really feel that way about the NCRM — we are 20,000 people working together.”
A modest beginning
The council was a much smaller non-profit when Berk answered an ad placed by the NRCM looking for a writer and editor in 1990.
“They wanted someone to write and edit their newsletter,” Berk said.
That was a time when newsletters, press releases, public service announcements and legislative action alerts were typed up on clunky word processors, printed out for review and revisions, retyped and then printed, copied and either mailed or faxed out.
“Things really evolved from there,” Berk said with a laugh. “We got more communications staff and now of course everything is done on the Internet and is instantaneous plus the NRCM has a website and social media presence with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.”
Every project, issue and policy move the NCRM worked on the last 28 years was documented by Berk who estimates she wrote and sent out more than 1,500 press releases and organized more than 1,000 press conferences.
But from the get-go, she hit the ground running. Her first issue that she helped on was efforts to prevent a coal plant from being built in Bucksport.
“That plant would have sent a plume of air pollution over Acadia National Park,” Berk said. “So the NRCM joined with local citizens to speak in opposition to it before the [Maine Department of Environmental Protection] and the [Bucksport] town council and it was defeated.”
She also recalled working early on with the resource council to collect and submit to the Maine Legislature signatures supporting what ultimately became Maine’s sensible transportation act.
“This act stipulates if you are going to build a new state road, you must first look if there are alternatives to expanding the roads and increasing the traffic,” Berk said. “We believed that adding more lanes was like loosening your belt when you gain weight — it does not solve the problem.”
Looking back, Berk is proud to have been on the front lines for these issues.
“I really feel like I played a small roll in all of that,” she said.
Learning to love the outdoors
Her love of the outdoors in Maine started young. Berk grew up outside of Boston, but spent her summers in Maine beginning when she was 4-years-old. Her grandparents owned and operated Camp Wingo on Bear Pond in South Waterford and that’s where Berk got her first taste of what Maine’s outdoors had to offer.
For eight weeks every summer, she collected tadpoles, caught bugs, picked flowers, walked in the woods and stargazed, cementing Berk’s love for the outdoors in general and for Maine outdoors in particular.
That camp is long gone, Berk said, but those memories remain clear to this day.
After college she moved to Belfast in 1976 where she started working at Alternative Resources selling off-grid items like wood stoves and composting toilets and in 1978 began working directly with state policy under Gov. Joseph Brennan in the state energy office. From there, she joined NRCM.
Looking ahead, Berk now plans to explore Maine in a way she never could as a full time employee.
“The time was right to retire now — I happened to turn 65 this year,” Berk said. “That’s one of those times you say, ‘Hmmm, time to start thinking about bucket lists and how I want to spend the last, precious years on this planet.’”
Berk plans to explore the region around her Northport home, hike, snowshoe, ski, check out the garden club, attend speaker events at her library and join in the weekly conversational French sessions at her local food co-op.
She also wants to pursue her passion for photography and spend more time combing the Maine woods for edible mushrooms.
“The people of Maine have a culture that is embedded in our environment,” Berk said. “I am so grateful to the people who supported the NRCM to help protect this state we love so much — Maine would not be the same without those people.”