(Photo courtesy Coastal Mountains Land Trust)
(Photo courtesy Coastal Mountains Land Trust)
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So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
– Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Renascence” (1917)

As spring arrives in the Camden Hills, snowmelt drips down slopes and runs down streams into Mirror Lake and Grassy Pond, high-elevation water sources that supply roughly 6,600 area households.

Gravity-fed water has linked local residents to the Camden Hills for more than 125 years since the Camden and Rockland Water Company first established Mirror Lake as a public water supply. Passersby today look out at wooded shores that have changed little over the intervening decades because the current utility company, Maine Water, owns 60 percent of the Grassy Pond and Mirror Lake watersheds.

That expanse of undeveloped watershed is highly unusual, notes the company’s president, Richard Knowlton, even by the standards of a rural state. A 2004 study found the median percentage of watershed lands held by utilities nationwide was only 2 percent.

The local drinking source watersheds remain wooded due to the foresight of water company leaders who began buying up available parcels early in the 1900s and maintained that practice for more than a century.

Long-term vision and persistence wasn’t confined to the water utility; by 2003, the nonprofit Coastal Mountains Land Trust had identified Ragged and Bald mountains as priorities for land protection.

Like springtime rivulets, these efforts merged over the past 15 years; that confluence will lead, later this year, to more than 3,100 acres protected on and around the slopes of the two mountains. At the center of this collage of conserved lands is what local resident and trail runner Emily McDevitt calls “the holy grail,” a new nine-mile trail that will encircle Ragged Mountain and will overlook newly protected forests around Mirror Lake.

“Trees don’t fail”

For public water systems, forested watersheds produce direct economic gains and simplify operations; “the more protection, the less treatment,” which in turn translates to less costly power and fewer chemicals, says Bruce Berger, executive director of the Maine Water Utilities Association. One study found that for every 10-percent increase in forest cover surrounding a water source, treatment and chemical costs decreased approximately 20 percent.

Paul Hunt, environmental manager for the Portland Water District—which spends more than $1 million annually on protection efforts around its Sebago Lake source waters—likes the reliability of forest filtration, saying “trees don’t fail” the way technology can. And the water tastes better, he adds: “I personally would rather drink water that never had pollutants in it than had them engineered out.”

The federal Safe Drinking Water Act enacted in the early 1970s, Knowlton says, encouraged utilities to acquire watershed lands and rewarded those with the most “pristine supplies” — like those of Mirror Lake and Grassy Pond — by allowing them to operate without filtration. In 2010, in response to new federal requirements, Maine Water added filtration (an upgrade, Knowlton says, consumers preferred to more disinfection). The company could have sold off real estate then to finance that expensive upgrade, he notes, but it dismissed that option because “the cleaner the supply, the easier the whole program becomes.”

By then, water company leaders realized that their lands fit within a larger vision for landscape-scale conservation, protecting what both the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and CMLT had identified as a “Ragged Mountain and Bald Mountain Focus Area.”

Discovering Shared Goals

The focus area emerged through strategic work CMLT did in the 1990s, setting conservation priorities with the help of U.S. Geological Survey maps and acetate overlays that showed wildlife habitat, farmland, woodlands, recreation resources, scenic features, soils and water bodies. “It was exactly the right attitude,” recalls Scott Dickerson, who became the organization’s first executive director in 1998, bringing with him “a toolbox of GIS planning and [experience] thinking about big areas.”

After committing to protect 3,500 acres surrounding Ragged and Bald mountains, CMLT began working toward that goal parcel by parcel, collaborating with willing landowners on purchases and on conservation easements (legally enforceable voluntary restrictions limiting future use).

Recognizing that Maine Water was the largest landowner by far, with 1,400 acres, Dickerson sat down to discuss potential conservation with the company’s president at the time, Judy Wallingford (who retired in 2017). She recalls realizing right away that they “totally shared the same vision.… We all had similar goals as fundamentals—like valuing water quality and public use.”

In response to community requests, Wallingford had already offered some hiking access across the company’s property, giving permission for the Georges Highland Path. “We wanted to share the beauty of the land with the public without it impacting water quality,” she recalls, and that initial experience proved positive for everyone.

CMLT’s conversations with Maine Water about large-scale protection continued for years (as tends to happen with many conservation projects), during which time Dickerson hatched the idea of creating a nine-mile trail that would wrap around Ragged Mountain and link to roughly 20 additional miles of existing trails. It first struck CMLT Executive Director Ian Stewart (who followed Dickerson in 2015) as a reach: “Scott proposed it before I thought it feasible,” he admits.

But Wallingford took in stride the proposal for a long loop trail—offering mountain biking, trail running, Nordic skiing and hiking—across Maine Water’s land. “It was very consistent with how we seek to make [our lands] available to the community, knowing we have this beautiful thousand-plus acres in a community that loves the outdoors.”

Uncommon Partnerships

The land trust realized that its Round the Mountain Trail project would add significant cost and complexity to the ongoing conservation work around Bald and Ragged mountains. It forged a partnership with the statewide conservation organization Maine Coast Heritage Trust and sought to engage community support—particularly from trail users.

McDevitt, the self-described “founder and chief instigator” of Trail Runners of Midcoast Maine, joined CMLT’s Round the Mountain committee early on. There’s been a shift in the land trust community over recent years, she says, as they “realized that people who use their trails are the most vested in protecting them. We’re some of their best advocates.”

McDevitt has walked the route of the new trail, which rises steeply at first then flattens out for most of its course. It traverses a “kind of topography you don’t see on a lot of trails around here,” she says. Ragged Mountain’s western face has a steep talus slope and open woodlands with giant boulders.

“Spots along the trail will have marvelous views,” Knowlton observes, “but the trail maintains a setback from the water of at least 250 feet.” He notes there are “several pages” in the conservation easement Maine Water signed with CMLT last September, covering 786 acres bordering Mirror Lake, that address specifics of trail corridor design, construction and ongoing maintenance.

CMLT has chosen a contractor experienced in backcountry work, Stewart says, and is requiring doubled erosion-control measures at each of the 18 stream crossings. For added oversight, the land trust is contracting with a local engineering company to provide on-site monitoring during trail construction—slated to start this May.

Knowlton is confident that the trail will fulfill the water company’s goals for resource protection and public enjoyment. Through years of discussion with the land trust, a partnership in the utility world he describes as “uncommon still, [at least] to this extent,” Knowlton has come to appreciate how useful and flexible conservation easements can be in balancing “the public’s interest in cleaner drinking water with active and passive recreation, wildlife habitat and scenic viewsheds.” In seeking to accommodate varied interests, he discovered, “there’s room there for everybody.”

The Round the Mountain Trail will draw added visitors to the area, Stewart says, but it’s designed primarily as a resource for the midcoast community. In the experience of Portland Water District’s Paul Hunt, local use is not likely to be problematic. “Every year, we’ve seen the number of visitors go up and the number of violations go down…. Most people are really respectful of land.”

More people on the land, Hunt says, has translated to more people reporting back on conditions and concerns. “It’s a neighborhood watch.”

In some settings, large-scale conservation can provoke local opposition, but town managers in both Camden and Rockport say that’s not been the case here—where community identity is closely bound to the iconic hills. Ragged and Bald mountains are “such a big part of Camden’s culture, and such a part of what we provide the larger community,” says Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell; “these are assets that are really valued economically and culturally by the town.”

Building Resilience

The value these conserved lands hold for the community may grow as the midcoast copes with effects of a changing climate. For Maine Water customers, watershed protection could mitigate impacts of the new weather patterns expected in the Northeast, such as longer droughts interspersed by heavy precipitation events.

Faced with a drought in the 1980s, the water company did change operations to ensure an adequate water quantity, moving intake valves and raising the level of Grassy Pond with a new dam. However, an increase in more frequent and more intense rain events could raise “issues of reliability,” Knowlton acknowledges. The utility is trying to build resilience through measures like auxiliary power and emergency response plans.

Household water use has fallen markedly since 2001, he notes, going from 150 to 115 gallons a day per household due to a combination of improved conservation habits and technological improvements (like low-flow toilets and more efficient appliances). Maine Water also restructured its bills to add incentives for water conservation.

In coming years, winters are expected to bring more precipitation in the form of rain, according to the 2015 Maine’s Climate Future report. Winters have been warming faster than summers, it notes, and winter snow loss along Maine’s southern coast could exceed 40 percent by mid-century relative to the recent climate (1995-2014).

As the Camden Snow Bowl’s current business model becomes less viable and the community seeks ways to generate sufficient revenues to cover operating costs, an expanded trail network on Ragged Mountain will open more recreational possibilities. The bleak long-term forecast for coastal ski resorts, Caler-Bell says, has provoked “extensive discussion” at the town level of ways to expand four-season recreation at the Snow Bowl.

Much of the year-round appeal of Ragged and Bald mountains lies in their natural diversity. A mix of open summit areas, coniferous forests, established oak woods, streams, ponds and wetlands draws other species, too, including those that have a large natural range. Birds like pileated woodpeckers and wood thrush survive best in settings with extensive intact forests.

The area is “pretty rich in a variety of landforms,” notes Andrew Cutko, director of science at The Nature Conservancy’s Maine office. He did an initial ecological inventory of Bald and Ragged mountains 16 years ago when working for the state and found many different micro-climates, created in response to variations in topography, orientation to the sun and proximity to water.

Ecologists now recognize that these micro-climates, along with connectivity among wildlife habitats, may help species survive as climate change forces them to migrate northward and up slopes. In a recent “climate resilience” mapping exercise, CMLT identified this focus area as being in the top 20 percent among its protected lands.

A warming climate could prompt waves of human migration as well, potentially bringing more people to Maine seeking communities with adequate water, less extreme heat and a high quality of life. Maine needs more young people as its population ages, and outdoor recreation — coupled with the cleaner air and water forests afford — could be a lure. Stewart says real estate agents have told him that good trails are an asset valued by younger families, one they rank high alongside good schools.

“The Power in Planning Ahead”

Later this year, when Maine Water executes a second conservation easement covering 500 acres around Grassy Pond, the land trust will have protected more than 3,100 acres in the vicinity of Bald and Ragged mountains—88 percent of its 2003 goal. And more projects are still in the works.

As daunting as those original acreage goals were, the fundraising targets were even more so. Dickerson retired from the land trust in 2015 so can now say with some distance, “What the land trust has been able to raise is stunningly amazing to me.” Its Round the Mountain collaboration is still active, and Stewart expects the costs of that initiative—combined with conservation work around Bald and Ragged—will total more than $10 million.

Support has come from many quarters—federal and state grants, foundations, individuals and community groups. McDevitt, who has worked with numerous civic groups over the years, says she has found CMLT “one of the most smart, forward-thinking and resourceful.”

The land trust first formed when development threatened Beech Hill in Rockport, but it soon learned “the power of planning ahead,” Stewart says, rather than simply reacting once valued places were threatened.

Many people might see the lands being conserved around Ragged and Bald mountains as not “highly developable,” says Rockport Town Manager Richard Bates, but his time in New Hampshire taught him that even steep lots get sold and developed—with blasting done prior to building. “Sometimes it takes a little vision,” he reflects, citing examples like Boston Common and Central Park: “Fifty or more years from now, people may be happy that someone had the foresight to protect these lands.”