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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Maine Islands

Air Date: Week of

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The solid crags and rock-faces of Maine’s islands belie their fragile ecosystems. And the public use of Maine’s islands threatens the very environment that draws people to visit them in the first place. But as Naomi Shalit reports, one organization is trying to soften the blow from public use.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. The coast of Maine is famous for its rocky shorelines, thundering waves, and spruce-covered hillsides. But that rugged appearance can be misleading. Maine's islands are actually fragile ecosystems with shallow soils and easily erodible shorelines. Many of these islands, with names like Sheep, Hog, Hen, and Hell's Half Acre, are now threatened by their increasing popularity. Some who have encouraged their use are now working to lighten the public's impact. Naomi Schalit of Maine Public Radio reports.

[sound of rivulets]

SCHALIT: Tom Berg and his wife June have run Maine Island Kayak, based on Peak's Island, near Portland, since 1986. During that time, Maine's coast and islands have seen an explosion in recreational use. Berg was the only staffer when Maine Island Kayak started. Now, the company's got 15 on the water guides.

BERG: From mid-tide up, that's a nice sandy beach. Mid-tide down, it's a lousy place to go. Plus, it stinks, that mucky stuff stinks.

SCHALIT: Similar lectures are given at dozens of kayaking centers all along the coast of Maine. Expensive pleasure boats also crowd island anchorages. And Tom Berg says not all of those boaters know how to treat the islands.

BERG: There's a bird nesting island close-by, and one day, several years ago, I saw a man with his 40 foot lobster boat that had a bunch of boy scouts type people, and the wind was blowing some 20-plus and they were making, gathering six foot long logs to make a bonfire. So I paddled in with my group--

SCHALIT: Aside from the fire danger Berg wanted to alert the group's leader that this particular island was off-limits to people.

BERG: And he was walking around up on the island, I paddled in and I said, "Excuse me, I just want you to know this is a bird nesting island." And he said, "Oh, they don't bother us."

SCHALIT: On other islands increased use has caused a range of problems.

NIXON: Some of the islands are demonstrating being loved to death.

SCHALIT: Rachel Nixon is trail manager for the Maine Island Trail Association, or MITA, established in the late 1980s. The 325 mile long water trail features dozens of public and private islands open for day use and overnight stopovers. One of the reasons the Association was founded in the first place was to build a constituency for island protection. But so many people are using the islands now, says Nixon, that MITA's promotion of them has taken a toll on their fragile soil.

NIXON: What we usually find are hardened areas where the roots are beginning to be exposed. That makes the trees more vulnerable if a winter storm comes through. We had a lot of blow-downs this winter that actually have turned what used to be campsites into just downed trees. So that's a big management concern. And because the roots have been exposed because of camping, it traces right back to the human use.

SCHALIT: In addition, fire builders strip trees of lower limbs, roaming pet dogs harass wildlife, and waste and toilet paper are strewn throughout an island's interior.

[sound of motorboat]

SCHALIT: Rising up out of the outside edge of Casco Bay looms Jewel Island. Long and low, with cobbly beaches and a spruce-fringed shoreline, the 180 acre island is one of the largest on the trail. But Jewel is also the most heavily used. It's most protected landing area, named Smuggler's Cove, is frequented so often by partygoers that it's been rechristened Cocktail Cove. But this is also where a caretaker, sponsored by MITA and the state, will set up camp this summer. Gerhard Sass will keep an eye on island use from here.

SASS: The site is right off here. It's a really nice spot because this is, generally speaking, the main landing area, so I can really have a good sense of who's coming ashore, and also I'll be very accessible to folks as well.

SCHALIT: Sass says he'll spend his time visiting campers on the bay's islands, letting them know how they can tread lightly on the islands.

SASS: We're hoping that we can just get people to think about walking over banks, scrambling up mossy ridge lines--those are all very delicate parts of the islands and they're not easily recreated.

SCHALIT: Sass says he's not interested in being a policeman. He grew up spending time here, and just wants to preserve the islands.

SASS: I'm as guilty as the next person, about the impacts that I've had. But it's very important that we really make a strong attempt to manage these islands in a way that people can still find why we go to islands, why people go and seek the wilderness. If we fail at this attempt, then the islands are going to be managed in a way that's very different from what they have anticipated and have experienced in the past. And I guarantee you they won't like that at all.

SCHALIT: But some of the island's visitors aren't particularly pleased with the current guidelines. Brian Phipps is camping with a lot of friends on a spot overlooking Cocktail Cove this weekend. The campsite is so overly used that its soil is hardened to a sheen. Cell phones, guitars and fishing rods are strewn about. A beer keg sits in a prominent spot. Phipps has been coming to Jewel since he was a kid. He laments the creeping regulations on the once wild island.

PHIPPS: I noticed a lot of signed, noticed people have taken it upon themselves to put up a lot of rules. That's a big change. Kind of intrusive. I feel like it's my island, pretty much. And they tell you you can only stay a couple of nights, or no more than six people on a trail, you know. You don't need rules, you come here to get away from the rules. I don't feel it's necessary. I mean, people have been coming here 30 years just for the camping, and they've never had any problems. I haven't seen any problems.

SCHALIT: MITA's considering placing a roaming caretaker to watch over other popular islands, and, further down east, on Butter Island, its owners have had a caretaker on sight for a number of years. Rob Cabot, who manages the island for his family, says massive overuse led his family to restrict access to the island after generations of being open to the public. And even that's not stopped the abuse. One afternoon, a large group came and built a big bonfire.

CABOT: And our caretaker went over and visited with them and invited them over to the side of the island where they were really allowed to be for public use, and that they were not allowed to have fires, particularly that year. They had a fire ban through the state because it was so dry. And this particular group refused to leave, and refused to stop their fire construction, and had all kinds of threats including, well, you call whoever you need to call to throw us off of here. So at that point, we were stuck with nothing else to do but call the authorities.

SCHALIT: Most people involved with the islands acknowledge that the promotion of tourism on Maine's fragile coast has turned out to be a Pandora's Box. Tom Berg with Maine Island Kayak says, if he wasn't running such a successful business, fewer people would be on the islands.

BERG: It's a real issue for us. We think a lot about that. I used to take people into real delicate, sensitive places in the western deserts, and I gave that up, because they were so delicate, protected places. There's many places in the coast of Maine that I don't talk about or take people.

SCHALIT: Even friends, says Berg. For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit, on Casco Bay, Maine.

[MUSIC LEAD-OUT: Schatz, "Go Home with the Girls".]



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