Marshall Island's Moment
For the past two years, Terry Towne has been taking Marshall Island apart piece by piece - the manmade pieces of it, that is. Old fishermen's shacks rotting into the duff of the forest floor, an ancient engine rusting quietly just above the shore, lengths of galvanized pipe and piles of tin cans. Towne, a land steward with Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the 981-acre island's new owner, burns what he can and packs the rest out to his boat in plastic totes.
Located on the edge of the Gulf of Maine between Isle au Haut and Swans Island, "Marshall is an amazing place," Towne says as he leads the way along a narrow game trail winding through the spruce and fir that cover most of the island. Hermit thrushes flit through the branches overhead, and Towne points out a bald eagle's nest on the end of a point. "This was the largest undeveloped, unprotected island on the East Coast. We were incredibly lucky to be able to acquire it."
Marshall Island has become the centerpiece in a string of conservation properties in the Mount Desert Island region and the new icon for island protection in Maine. "This has been our largest single project in the thirty-five-year history of Maine Coast Heritage Trust," explains the trust's longtime president, Jay Espy. As a cornerstone of the trust's Campaign for the Coast, an unprecedented $100-million fund-raising project, Marshall Island also demonstrates the new pressures facing efforts to protect all Maine islands as demand sends prices skyrocketing.
The ruins that Terry Towne dismantles above Sand Cove, a sand-dollar-studded beach that is the primary attraction for the island's infrequent visitors, are the remains of a tiny seasonal fishing community that was based on the island in the early and mid-1900s. "There used to be a herring weir in the cove," Towne explains, "and the fishermen who tended it would stay out here for weeks at a time."
The little community was fairly sophisticated, with electric power from a four-cylinder generator and running water piped in from a nearby spring. When the onshore herring fishery died in the early 1960s, however, the fishermen stopped coming and the forest reclaimed the spot.
In the late 1970s, a consortium of entrepreneurs bought most of the island. They planned a retreat for super-rich Europeans, complete with an airfield, a village of high-end shops and boutiques, and seven-figure "cottages" scattered along Marshall Island's seven miles of shorefront.
They only got as a far as the airfield, a gravel X-shape carved out of the center of the 981-acre island. These days the airstrip is overgrown and abandoned, with sweet fern and spruce saplings encroaching around its edges, although it's still visible enough from the air that small-plane pilots take their bearings from it as they pass overhead.
Visitors are rare even on warm summer days. Marshall Island's location on the edge of open ocean more than ten miles southwest of Mount Desert Island puts it beyond the range of all but the most expert sea kayakers, and there are no overnight campsites. The only attractive anchorage, at Sand Cove, is open to the southwest and to the winds and waves rolling in off the Gulf of Maine. But the island has a long history as a popular picnic spot for Swans Island residents and summer visitors from other islands in the region.
"I remember my dad driving the old boat out to Sand Cove when I was just a little kid," recalls Cyrus Noble, of Falmouth. "Even when it was privately owned, they allowed people to visit the island for day trips. If it had been developed, that would have changed, of course."
These days Noble, a member of the summer community on Harbor Island near Swans, and his wife, Robin, bring their four young children to Sand Cove at least once each summer for afternoons of building sand castles and splashing in the waves. Robin Noble, from a family of longtime Southwest Harbor summer residents, first started visiting the island when she was eight.
"It's probably my favorite island out there," she says. "I think it's tremendously important to protect it. The fact that there are places like Marshall is one reason we moved to Maine permanently four years ago. We decided this was the place we wanted to raise our family."
Jay Espy says the trust first began working on protecting Marshall Island some thirty-five years ago. "The original focus was for inclusion as part of Acadia National Park," he explains. "In the late 1970s we thought we'd lost it when 750 acres on the northern three-quarters of the island were bought for resort development."
The resort proposal finally faded away during the recession of the early 1990s, and in 1992 the acreage was sold at auction. "We started working with the new owners," Espy notes, "and in 2002 they agreed to sell their portion, with a lifetime lease on 100 acres of pasture land and permission to build a small cabin." In February 2003 the trust acquired another 100 acres, and in December 2003 Espy closed the deal on the last piece of land.
In all, the island cost $6.3 million, and Espy considers the price a bargain.
"Over the past five years island property has increased in price by 15 to 20 percent a year," Espy notes. "If anything, the competition for islands has gotten worse in just the past year or two. Two years ago Fog Island, near Isle au Haut, was bought for $600,000. It's on the market again for $1.6 million.
"That's what caused us to launch the Campaign for the Coast," Espy continues. "We have to do it now or we'll be priced out of the market." In the last four years, the campaign has raised more than $72 million, protected more than 12,200 acres of land, 105 miles of shoreline, and forty-two entire islands.
"There's a definite feeling of urgency," Espy says of the trust's island-protection effort. "Thank goodness for wonderful island owners who are willing to donate easements or work on bargain-price sales."
Maine Coast Heritage Trust and other island conservation organizations are running up against the same market forces that have long plagued their mainland counterparts. Maine islands have acquired a new cachet, thanks to improved communications and transportation, after decades of lower prices and slower sales compared to mainland shorefrontage.
The trend became obvious several years ago. One conservation trust director tells the story of how he tried to acquire a small island off Harpswell in Casco Bay, only to have it snatched away at the last minute by a New York mutual-fund manager who paid $500,000 in cash without blinking an eye. The new buyer explained that he had been renting a summer place on the New York shore for $100,000 a month for the previous several years. As far as he was concerned, the island was five years of summer rentals, and for another five years of rental payments, he could build the kind of summer place he always wanted rather than borrowing someone else's. "And he knew he'd be able to sell it later on for far more than he paid for it," the trust director concluded.
On the other hand, "there are people who come in and buy an island who can be beneficial," Espy points out. "For example, one day someone came in the door here and said he had been lucky in life and he wanted do something good with his money. He ended up buying and protecting Jordans Delight off Milbridge, and it's now an important seabird nesting island."
Islands in the Mount Desert region are especially valuable, according to David MacDonald, an acquisition manager for Maine Coast Heritage Trust. "We see the same trends as they do elsewhere along the coast, but the difference is that so few islands become available around here," he explains. "And when they do come on the market, there's fierce competition for them."
MacDonald says one result is the increase in pressure on islands farther Down East. "We see people trying to get away from the rat race south and west of Mount Desert," he notes, "and a lot of people have been priced out of that market anyway. So they're looking at Washington County."
The islands of the Mount Desert region also have a long tradition of stable family ownership, but MacDonald predicts that situation will face challenges soon. "I see a real trend in the next ten years where a lot of families will be transferring ownership to the next generation," he explains. "In cases where you have siblings scattered all over the country, with no real connection to Maine, that likely means selling the property."
Terry Towne is sitting on a driftwood log eating sardines in hot sauce on Ritz crackers. He has the big square hands of a lobsterman, which he has been. He has also been a scallop diver, a high-school biology teacher, and a few other things. This job, though, as a land steward for Maine Coast Heritage Trust, is the one that lets him combine everything he loves - the water, islands, biology, and conservation.
There's still a lot to learn about Marshall Island, he says, before the trust can decide how to handle it. For example, a migratory bird survey last year turned up the surprising news that the island is an important stopping-off point for a wide variety of birds on their annual trips north and south.
"In the spring birds will land on the south end of the island and work their way north feeding on insects," he explains. "Then they take off from the northern end for their nesting grounds."
The island also has deer and mink and a few river otters, but it's so far out to sea that squirrels haven't made the leap from the mainland. Towne studies the trash that washes up on the shores and makes disparaging comments about the number of plastic water bottles he finds. "People must think they dissolve when you throw them overboard or something," he mutters.
Marshall Island is unique, Towne says, because no one is in a rush to set up campsites or cut trails. "We have the chance to take our time here," he says. The dense forests will remain unharvested for the foreseeable future and perhaps forever.
"We're just in the process of getting to know Marshall Island," Towne explains. "All these islands out here form a barrier between the open ocean and the interior islands, Mount Desert, and the mainland, and it's all wilderness. There hasn't been a lot of human activity out here, and what there was of it occurred a long time ago."
The last remnants of that activity will vanish this spring. After tearing down and carrying off all he could by hand, Towne has hired a local contractor to come out with a landing craft and a backhoe to remove the last big chunks of old engines and debris. "Once that's done," Towne says, "there'll be nothing left out here but footprints."
The Maine Coast Heritage Trust and its Campaign for the Coast can be contacted at 1 Main Street, Suite 201, Topsham, Maine, 04086. 207-729-7366.
Maine Coast Heritage Trust
Maine Coast Heritage Trust, with some 1,500 active members, has its roots in the very beginning of the modern environmental movement in Maine. In 1970 several Maine island owners, including Thomas Cabot and Peggy Rockefeller, formed the trust to protect offshore properties that were vital to the health of seabird colonies and other wildlife yet were increasingly endangered by development. In the years since, using both conservation easements and outright purchase, the trust has helped protect 118,000 acres of land and 245 islands along the Maine coast.
The Campaign for the Coast is the trust's most ambitious fund-raising project in its history, with an ultimate goal of raising $100 million in cash and in-kind contributions of land and easements. Campaign manager Jonathan Labaree says 75 percent of the donations will go toward land conservation, with another 10 percent earmarked for the stewardship fund, 10 percent for an operating endowment, and 5 percent for the trust's conservation leadership program, which helps train land-trust managers and works to increase conservation awareness.
So far the campaign has raised some $72 million from 730 individual donors. Labaree says almost $20 million has already gone back out again for various acquisitions.