Perched atop this modest peak of French Mountain — a bald granite outcropping covered with tufts of redolent blueberry and juniper — it's the quiet that gets you. The air is sweet and still. The grasshoppers clack like castanets as they drift by. The summer sun dazzles the pond below, and green-black fir trees fringe the surrounding hills. How fine it is to be away from it all.
Except that this spot is not so far away from most anything. Draw a sixty-mile radius from this hilltop, and you'll encompass half the population of Maine. At your feet thrives one of the state's busiest summer communities. Malls and big-box stores are just down the road a piece, as are the politicians wrestling with the contentious issue of what to do with Maine's public lands.
So while you might feel isolated, you are in fact in the Kennebec Highlands — a 6,100-acre tract of protected land in the Belgrade Lakes region, just outside Augusta, that includes several peaks (including the highest in Kennebec County), unspoiled streams, wetlands, wildlife habitat, and five undeveloped ponds. And all this undisturbed quiet and beauty has been made possible by one of the most remarkable grassroots land preservation movements in the state, the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance (BRCA).
At a time in Maine when land use is being hotly debated as never before, the BRCA is something of an inspiration. This land acquisition was not the product of a large grant or gift or the result of political maneuvering in Augusta. It started with nothing more than a few concerned citizens who saw the value of open-space protection in an area others might have overlooked. Because, while the idea of protecting the North Woods or the Bold Coast evokes a certain romance, land conservation in central Maine — well, let's face it — just ain't sexy. And, perhaps, it was for that very reason that this project was all the more urgent.
Founded in 1988 as the Watson Pond Conservation Trust before morphing into its current form, the alliance now ranks among the state's largest, with more than six hundred members, both in and out-of-state. The Land for Maine's Future program has awarded the Kennebec Highlands project almost two million dollars, and the alliance itself has raised a whopping one million (including a twenty thousand dollar donation from Paul Newman, when he was in Maine filming Empire Falls). No small potatoes for a kitchen-table revolution.
To get a true appreciation of what the BRCA has accomplished over the past two decades, however, it's best to get a lay of the land. The bulk of the Kennebec Highlands is located in a swath that runs between the Belgrade Lakes and Route 41. It includes parts of Rome, Mount Vernon, Vienna, and New Sharon. (Two additional peaks — Mount Philip and The Mountain — are located east of Route 27.) If you've ever driven through the village of Belgrade Lakes and seen that pristine hilly backdrop west of Long Pond — that's the Kennebec Highlands. And the reason you see trees along that ridgeline instead of expensive houses is the BRCA and its allies.
None of this would have been possible without the vision of the group's founders or the tireless efforts of John Schooley, of the Watson Pond Landowners Association, and Denny Phillips, who has made the BRCA his life's work since he retired eight years ago at the age of fifty-one from the Department of Environmental Protection. A compact, wiry man with a thick gray brush cut and mustache, Phillips is an unlikely looking conservationist — more boot camp than hiking boot. Today, we have met for a leisurely stroll up the Round Top trail and to talk about this remarkable success story.
As we wend our way up the gentle, wooded grade, Phillips says he never intended for this project to become so complex. Initially, after acquiring French Mountain, he felt the work was done. "We would have been perfectly happy with what we had already accomplished," he says.
But when The Mountain — a popular local recreation spot — went up for sale, it became clear that more work needed to be done. A developer wanted to put a convention center on the hilltop, says Phillips. Fortunately a kindred organization, the Belgrade Lakes Association, was able to raise $140,000 and buy it. Now conservationists had two of the area's favorite peaks protected.
"Nobody had a clue as to how to proceed," Phillips says. So BRCA board members started calling people and found their way to consultant Jerry Bley in Readfield, whose assistance proved instantly invaluable. The project went into overdrive.
One of the first things the alliance needed was a name for the land it was acquiring. Mid-Maine Recreational Area was tossed around, but it never caught on. Somewhere along the line, someone came up with Kennebec Highlands. Although Phillips confesses he wasn't at first wild about the name ("It sounded like a trailer park"), it has come to sum up the area and speak to all BRCA is trying to achieve.
As we crest Round Top, a father and his teenage son pass us on their way down the path. Phillips takes a minute to ask how they found out about the trail, what they thought of the view, and to generally just spread the BRCA gospel a bit. When the hikers leave, Phillips and I gaze down at the amazingly thin strip of land that supports the town of Belgrade Lakes. Standing on this peak puts this region's unusual geography in perspective.
As we descend through a boulder field on the backside of Round Top that serves as a coyote hangout in winter, Phillips reflects that when he first moved to the area, this region was considered "nowhere." People thought he was crazy to drive twenty minutes to work in Augusta. Today, he says, sprawl has changed everything. As an example, he points to Route 27 through Augusta — which is all zoned for commercial use now. "One by one, the small shops and houses are disappearing," he says. "If you think it's going to end at the Augusta city line, you're wrong."
To understand that broader view, look at an area map with Mike Little, BRCA's executive director. Little stresses the group's grassroots origins when we first meet at the alliance's headquarters in "downtown" Belgrade Lakes. "See that big briefcase up there?" he says, pointing to a massive, legal-style briefcase high atop a shelf. "That is the former BRCA office."
Today, the offices are more official-looking and are shared with the Maine Conservation Corps, which deals with watershed issues and does boat checks for invasive species. Tucked on the second floor at the rear of what appears to be a former garage-cum-café, the place has new carpeting and computers, as well as a giant topographic map pinned to the wall showing the various parcels the BRCA has acquired, demarcated in different colors. The bulk of the holdings are in the shape of a backwards C, explains Little. And like pieces of an abstract jigsaw puzzle, the Kennebec Highlands project came together slowly, through a series of negotiations with literally dozens of landowners.
Because most of the Kennebec Highlands has been acquired through the state's Land for Maine's Future program, most of it will be turned over to the Department of Conservation for oversight. That means the land will be open for mixed use, including snowmobiling, all-terrain vehicle riding, and forestry — although Little says that the land has been so devastated by irresponsible harvesting it will be another fifty years before there's a good harvest.
"Why do we do this?" he asks. It's a rhetorical question, a moment of musing as he gazes at the map. "Even when there's no money, people still want to protect the land. When was the last time you went home and looked around and didn't recognize the place you grew up?" Uncontrolled change is a powerful motivator.
But Denny Phillips knows that merely acquiring land is not enough. To truly preserve it for future generations there needs to be a plan in place. "People think of stewardship as blazing trails," he says, but just as important is managing the use of the land. In 2002, the BRCA was awarded $66,000 from the Land for Maine's Future Board to begin readying the woods, fields, and ponds for increased low-impact activity. Phillips says they must proceed with caution. One of the dilemmas he worries about is the possibility of "loving a place to death."
With 6,100 acres already secured, BRCA is looking in all directions — particularly north toward New Sharon — for parcels for possible acquisition. An additional four thousand acres doesn't seem out of the question, says Phillips.
The issue to him is crystal clear. Change is coming fast. At this point the only thing for BRCA to do is move ahead. "We can't not do it," he says.