AMHERST, Maine — When a large parcel of land in this Hancock County town became available for purchase several years ago, some might have viewed the situation as simply another sign of the times in an era during which large land holdings in Maine changed hands with startling regularity.
“After decades, maybe a hundred years of quite stable ownership of this property, which was kind of the heart and soul of this little town of Amherst … it ended up selling three times in about six years,” said Alan Hutchinson, the executive director of the Forest Society of Maine.
Residents of Amherst, however, were worried. And they got to work.
On Thursday, residents, school pupils and state officials gathered on that parcel of land to celebrate the end result of that work: The formation of the Amherst Mountains Community Forest. Thanks in part to a $2.2 million federal Forest Legacy Program grant and an additional $700,000 from the Land for Maine’s Future program, future ownership of the parcel is assured and access guaranteed.
“This has been our backyard, for all of us, forever,” Amherst selectman Phil Deckers said. “And now the kids are going to find it to be their backyard as well.”
Under the agreement, the state purchased the land and entered into a management partnership with the town. Future proceeds from any timber operations will be shared by the state and the town. The Forest Society of Maine, a statewide land trust with a focus on forest conservation, helped Amherst officials throughout the process and will continue to provide technical assistance to the town.
Will Harris, director of the Maine Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, praised the effort.
“It really is kind of one of a kind,” Harris said. “Part of [the reason for that] is where [the land is located]. Oftentimes our public lands are not in organized towns or the towns aren’t as organized as Amherst was in their desire to do this. It really took those two things for this to happen.”
The Amherst Mountains Community Forest parcel rests west of Route 9 and extends nearly five miles in that direction, abutting a series of other conservation parcels that stretches toward Bradley and Old Town. The forest includes five remote ponds and features some rugged terrain, ledges, forest and wetlands.
After the official ceremony on Thursday, visitors took a 20-minute hike to the top of Bald Bluff Mountain, where they enjoyed spectacular views of Chick Hill and other nearby peaks.
The land has been a focal point of science studies by students at nearby Airline Community School, who have been heading into the woods to work on projects in recent years. Eighth-grader Isaiah Massey spoke on behalf of the students at the ceremony.
“I think it’s real nice that you did this for us, because in the future we’ll always be able to come here and have fun and fish and things like that,” Massey said. “If you hadn’t protected this area, it might have been lost in the future.”
Hutchinson praised donors and Maine’s congressional delegation, including senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Rep. Michael Michaud, for helping secure federal funding for the project. A Snowe representative from her Bangor office also attended the ceremony.
Deckers admitted that when town officials began meeting with the state, he had some concerns. Chief among those: Continued access to the parcel and making sure that lost tax revenue would be offset in some way. He said he said both concerns have been addressed.
“The forest society has offered to kick in the loss of tax revenue for a large number of years, which made this possible for the town,” Deckers said. “The big issue was access, and the state [ownership] gives us the best opportunity to keep that open. We’ve lost a little bit of road due to closures, but we think that’s a temporary thing.”