A grassroots group takes another path to land conservation

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A group of local residents trying to buy Haystack Mountain in Montville enjoy the stunning views from the top of Midcoast Mountain. Most conservation agreements in Maine are brokered by nonprofits or the state — not by a grassroots group of locals. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

MONTVILLE — When Ben Roberts-Pierel was just 12 hours old, his father, Cam Pierel, carried the newborn up the 840-foot Haystack Mountain because the mountain was right behind the family home, and going up the mountain was everything just what they have always done.

“I was born in November. So it was a bit cold. Dad then took me down the street to meet the neighbors and they said, ‘You have to take him home,'” said Roberts-Pierel, now 34. “I always go up the mountain when I come home.”

Roberts-Pierel is among those lending his voice to a grassroots effort to preserve Haystack Mountain in Montville and Liberty in Maine’s Midcoast. Allen’s Blueberry Freezer Inc. in Ellsworth sells 60 acres at the top of the mountain which includes a dirt access road to blueberry fields.

The newly formed Friends of Haystack Mountain signed a purchase and sale agreement for the land with Allen’s on June 14. The group has until the end of the year to raise the $450,000 needed to purchase the land, and hopes to do so through a combination of grants and private donations, said Buck O’Herin, who is involved in the basic effort.

What’s at stake is a mile-long loop trail that crosses a peak that has breathtaking views of Mount Washington to the west, Blue Hill Mountain to the east, and the Camden Hills to the southeast. After the leaves fall in the fall, there are views of Lake St. George to the west. The iconic sight is to many in the Midcoast what Mount Agamenticus or Bradbury Mountain is to outdoor enthusiasts in southern Maine.

Here, local families have shared picnics, Easter egg hunts, family reunions and sledding parties for generations because Allen allowed public access.

Ben Roberts-Pierel, Cathy Roberts and Martha Piscuskas, left to right, admire the view atop Haystack Mountain, which they are trying to protect. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Friends of Haystack Mountain are guided and advised by the Midcoast Conservancy, which will serve as the fiscal partner so the group of friends can apply for grants. The Conservancy was unwilling to purchase the mountain because it is outside of its target conservation area, said Pete Nichols, executive director of the Conservancy.

Conservation works to connect protected lands to preserve biodiversity and mitigate the impacts of climate change by creating wildlife corridors.

Having an ad hoc core group to protect a single piece of land is not how conservation agreements are typically made, said Warren Whitney, director of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust land trust program.

Whitney said tvast majority of the time, a land trust or non-profit conservation organization purchases land for conservation purposes. By 2019, Maine’s approximately 85 land trusts had protected just under 2.7 million acres in Maine, according to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

“It’s interesting that it happened in a few places. But I haven’t heard of many people doing it,” Whitney said of such a grassroots effort focused on a single piece of land.

When O’Herin, Cathy Roberts and several others found themselves with an offer to purchase Allen’s 60-acre mountaintop, they quickly formed into a passionate group, dividing up the tasks to get the job done. and focused their attention on the preservation of the Mountain. The group of friends plans to become a limited liability company, O’Herin said.

If the group Friends succeeds in raising the $450,000 for the sale of the land, they will then donate it to the Midcoast Conservancy knowing that they can continue to enjoy it.

“We have spent a lot of time every season here. That’s where my kids’ outdoor activities started,” Roberts said.

Local residents attempting to purchase Haystack Mountain from Allen’s Blueberry Freezer Inc plan to turn over the property to the Midcoast Conservancy if they are successful in securing it. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The mile-long loop trail is often used by local students from Walker School, which sits at the base of the mountain in Liberty. The trailhead can be accessed via the Walker Health Center, which is next to the local elementary school.

Martha Piscuskas, another friend group resident who lives near the mountain in Liberty, also regularly hikes to the top – and 30 years ago she used to climb it daily while knitting, during a particularly robust knitting period of his life.

“It’s like going to the post office or to the market. You go up the mountain,” Piscuskas said. “We want to keep it, turn it over to the Midcoast Conservancy, and then step back.”

A natural rock patio covers the summit with signs of the last ice age throughout, such as the dimpled rock path and glacial erratics that line the trail to the summit.

The summit bedrock includes metamorphic rocks formed by plate tectonics, according to the Maine Geological Survey. “The heating, compression and folding of the rocks are visible under your feet,” the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry says of the mountaintop.

“Nobody wants this to develop. It’s been a resource for a long time,” O’Herin said. “When the band started getting together, everyone started scrambling.”

With just over six months to raise the funds, the group plans to secure a loan and then seek funding through grants, such as those from Land for Maine’s Future, O’Herin said.

He plans to lend his expertise as chairman of the reserve’s board of directors. O’Herin was instrumental in creating the 46-mile Hills to Sea trail between Belfast and Unity.

“I’m involved because we’ll see more of this in the next five to 10 years,” O’Herin said. “And it’s exciting to see people in a community stepping in and trying to protect the land. It will happen again. This kind of effort is going to be vital.


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