Jim and Cindy Dunham and Les Hyde, left to right, were recognized at the 2017 Maine 4-H Foundation annual meeting, which celebrated the 35th year of Tanglewood operating as a 4-H camp. (Photos courtesy of UMaine staff)
Jim and Cindy Dunham and Les Hyde, left to right, were recognized at the 2017 Maine 4-H Foundation annual meeting, which celebrated the 35th year of Tanglewood operating as a 4-H camp. (Photos courtesy of UMaine staff)
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Students from Tanglewood 4-H Camp on a one-week canoe trip were coming down the St. George River looking for their campsite in Warren in the dark as Leslie “Les” Hyde climbed a big pine on the river’s edge nearby.

Once perched in the tree, Hyde let out the call of the Barred Owl to surprise the canoeists.

Hyde, a University of Maine educator with Cooperative Extension who never outgrew his contagious sense of fun or his ability for making the improbable seem possible, died on Christmas Day, leaving behind a legacy of successful nature education and land conservation projects that he championed — including launching the Georges River Land Trust and Tanglewood 4-H Camp in Lincolnville.

“Nature was his church and conservation his religion,” said Anne Cogger, his wife of 36 years, quoting a friend’s description of Hyde’s land ethic.

A tall man with big energy and a big smile, Hyde was known for his gentleness, but he also had a steely resolve when pressured to compromise his conservation values, according to Cogger. He wouldn’t do it, not even in the face of lawsuits, powerful wealth, and very long odds.

The private Les Hyde loved his time alone in fields and woods with his chainsaw and his tractor, but the public man was both gregarious and an adept negotiator who could bring people with knowledge, power and passion together to get conservation initiatives launched while never losing what one close friend called a “talent for living.”

Hyde would also make sure those with pragmatic approaches to land use did not lose sight of the mystery and complexity of nature, even going so far as to blindfold industry foresters and have them feel and listen their way through the woods to get a sense of what their eyes and forestry statistics couldn’t tell them.

 


Hyde made things happen, according to Jim Dunham, who co-managed Tanglewood 4-H Camp in Lincolnville with Cindy Dunham for almost 30 years. The Dunhams, who themselves have become icons of conservation education, teamed up with Hyde to launch Tanglewood 4-H Camp.

Shortly after moving to Maine as a single parent in 1981 and taking a job as a Cooperative Extension educator for Knox and Lincoln counties, Hyde met Cindy Dunham at a conference. Cindy and Jim were experienced environmental educators and camp managers who had just built a house in Lincolnville next to the state-owned Tanglewood camps which were being underutilized. The Dunhams saw an opportunity to make Tanglewood into a regular summer camp with a nature focus, but didn’t have the connections to make it happen. Hyde embraced the idea. Together they crafted a mission to make summer camp available to local children while focusing student attention on the natural world outside their back door.

Hyde promoted the idea with his supervisors at the University of Maine. They gave the go-ahead, so he set to negotiating with the head of Bureau of Parks and Lands to lease Tanglewood from Camden Hills State Park. He also set up an advisory board with deep connections who started fundraising. In 1982, when Tanglewood opened to offer one-week residential programs, the 4-H camp had 260 students. The cost: $50 a week, including room and board.

“One of the things Les always started with when he had an idea for a project was: ‘Wouldn’t this be great?’” said Cogger. And that meant he was in it for the long haul.

Maine’s youth were at the core of Hyde’s commitment.

“Children just gravitated to him,” said Cogger. “We would be walking down the road and stop to chat with a neighbor and before you knew it, the kids would be climbing him like a tree.”

Among the letters and cards thanking Hyde for a life well lived were those from former Tanglewood campers who said he had changed theirs forever.

That enchantment was mutual.

Hyde saw children as the key to the future of conservation, perhaps because as a young juvenile delinquent in Rhode Island he had been diverted from stealing car parts and planting cherry bombs in mailboxes by a favorite teacher who encouraged him to start planting trees at the run-down family farm outside Providence. Half a century later, the 80-acre Christmas tree farm Hyde started is being run by his sister and is under protection from the development that swallowed up the surrounding area.

Tanglewood is just one of Hyde’s achievements. He was the spark to conserving Tommy’s Island and High Island and establishing the Blueberry Cove 4-H Camp in St. George; starting and running Yankee Forestry Camp for landowners for 25 years; establishing a leadership program for youth at Tanglewood; and showing all of us that one person can have a big impact on the world we know and the future we want.