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As spring sunshine melts the snow and coaxes out early wildflowers in Maine, people are turning to the outdoors for some much needed fresh air during the COVID-19 pandemic. With safety in mind, Maine land trusts throughout the state are doing what they can to help.
In addition to keeping their preserves open to the public for recreation, several land trusts are finding ways to engage with the public and offer fun activities while encouraging social distancing. These new offerings include story and poetry walks, scavenger hunts, self-guided nature tours and virtual hikes.
“We definitely have been pivoting,” said Landere Naisbitt, outreach coordinator for the Blue Hill Heritage Trust. “We’ve canceled most of the spring events that we normally do, but still want to engage with our community and let them know we’re still here for them.”
More than 80 land trusts — or nonprofit conservation organizations — are scattered throughout Maine, united by the Maine Land Trust Network. Over the past few weeks, these organizations have been noticing increased visitation to their properties and trails as people are turning to outdoor recreation as a safe form of entertainment and exercise during the pandemic.
“There’s been a very noticeable uptick in activity [at preserves],” said Warren Whitney, director of Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s land trust program. “It’s a time of year when you’d expect the fewest people out and [interest in trails] is at July and August levels.”
To ensure that preserves remain a safe place where people can enjoy the outdoors during this challenging time, land trusts have been working together to get out consistent messaging about social distancing and other safety guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Folks really want the public to get out and take advantage of the trails and resources but also make sure they’re doing it safely,” said Whitney.
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New outdoor activities and programs
Many of Maine’s land trusts offer regular public programming such as guided walks, birding festivals, nature presentations and outdoor skills workshops. But due to COVID-19, these events have been canceled. So, they’re finding other ways to reach the public.
Blue Hill Heritage Trust, for example, has installed story walks at some of their preserves. These temporary fixtures feature laminated pages from picture books, space in chronological order along trails. And along the same lines, land trust has also installed a poetry walk of work from famous poets.
“So far, we’ve had really positive responses,” Naisbitt said. “I just got an email the other day regarding the poetry trail. [The email sender] went out on the trails and saw some of her favorite poems and it brought tears to her eyes. It helped her have a really good day.”
BHHT is also attempting to connect more with its community via the internet. While the organization typically sends out a newsletter once a month, it’s now sending a different newsletter twice a week.
“We’ve also been reaching out to the schools and helping teachers with their send-home packets to supplement their science curriculum,” said Naisbitt. “This past weekend I did some videos for them as well on different nature activities.”
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Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Old Town recently released its first Kids in Nature Digest, a monthly email newsletter that includes an outdoor scavenger hunt, instructions for a quick and easy craft project, nature facts and nature-related jokes.
“I wanted to give families something really simple and easy to get outside and engaged with a little bit of science or observation,” said Julia McLeod, outreach coordinator for the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. “And part of it, too, is just wanting to do something in this time. I spend a lot of time teaching anyway — I just wanted to do something to help people out.”
Meanwhile in western Maine, the Western Foothills Land Trust, Greater Lovell Land Trust and Loon Echo Land Trust have teamed up to launch the Pocket Nature Journal Activity Series. Every Friday, the land trusts post a new print-and-fold nature journal to help educate and inspire adults and children to study and enjoy nature. This week’s journal teaches how to identify three different trees in Maine by observing bark and spring buds. It also includes instructions for related activities such as acorn hide-and-seek and bark rubbing.
In addition, Greater Lovell Land Trust has started publishing virtual hikes to their preserves for people who can’t get out to enjoy them for whatever reason. And heading north, Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust is developing a virtual birding trail for their region, just in case the organization has to cancel its June birding festival.
“We’ve created a list of some fairly well-known birding spots,” said Amanda Laliberte, program director for the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust. “We’re encouraging people to bird because it’s such an individual sport and you don’t need much to get started.”
When Rangeley Lakes Regional School shut down due to COVID-19 in mid-March, the land trust provided the students with a list of 32 things to do in the area with their families. And more recently, the land trust distributed “nature bags” containing animal track ID cards and other tools for area children to use while exploring the outdoors.
“The things that we focus on as a land trust is community and conservation,” said Laliberte. “That’s really what my job is focused on. What’s the point of the land if no one is going to appreciate it in 50 or 100 years? So we have kind of been postponing the conservation side and focusing on the community.”
When visiting public trails, think safety first
Most land trust properties in Maine are open to the public right now, with special signs posted at trailhead and parking areas reminding visitors of CDC guidelines regarding social distancing and other safety measures. For example, land trusts are asking that visitors step off trail and give each other at least six feet of distance when passing one another.
“We obviously want to make all these preserves and parks available, especially at this time, but we have to do that within the framework of not contributing to the spread of the disease,” Whitney said.
Some popular preserves and parks have closed, so it’s best to check online for recent closures and trail conditions before visiting an outdoor location. Also, head out with a few different destinations in mind, and if you arrive to find a parking lot full, head to your next destination or return another time.
“This is a challenging time that’s going to be going on for a while,” Whitney said. “We hope people adapt and pay attention to the guidelines so they can get out and discover some preserves.”
Watch: How to stop the spread of germs