When Meg Rasmussen took the job of executive director of the Georges River Land Trust (GRLT) she and husband Brian Higley had to decide where in the watershed they wanted to live. Although they considered a number of different communities, they ended up choosing St. George, where they bought an old farmhouse at the end of Watts Avenue in Tenants Harbor. Their familiarity with the peninsula through Rasmussen’s parents, who had been living near Drift Inn Beach for the past 25 years, was part of the reason for settling here. But there were other factors as well, including the opportunities they’d like their young daughter, Alita, to have.
“We were already in love with the town,” Rasmussen says, “with the character of the landscape, the villages, the coast—and we had good connections with people here. But what ultimately decided it was that we loved the school. We talked with people there about their philosophy of expeditionary learning—we were really intrigued by that and by all that this school does to connect students to the environment.” In 2018, as Rasmussen points out, the St. George School was named “School of the Year” by the Maine Environmental Education Association, a group whose mission is to build “an environmentally literate Maine where powerful learning experiences connect individuals to the state’s landscapes.”
In many ways, too, in choosing to live in St. George the couple was choosing to be part of just the sort of community the GRLT would like to see flourishing throughout the Georges River watershed.
“St. George is a community that already has a lot in place in terms of tools for promoting conservation,” Rasmussen says, referring to the town’s very active Conservation Commission and its Comprehensive Plan, which urges respect for the things that contribute positively to the town’s quality of life—among them accessibility to its natural environment. These tools, she says, help give conservation-minded people here a strong voice in local decision-making. That means a town like St. George can become a place where “people and nature are allies. For me it’s not about freezing things in time and just fossilizing what things look like, but about having a healthy community where development doesn’t wreck the natural world.”
Rasmussen came to the GRLT from the Hudson River Valley where she had the position of Senior Park Planner with the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, a large environmental group. A landscape architect by training, her work involved leading a series of major capital projects totaling over $15.8 million and involving dozens of design professionals, contractors, staff and organizational/municipal partners. But when she learned from her mother, Jane, that the GRLT was looking to hire a new executive director she was already scanning the horizon for new challenges. “I was looking for a way to make a bigger difference,” she reflects. “I was a small part of a big organization which was doing great, but that could continue doing great without me.”
Rasmussen says she is enthusiastic about the GRLT’s work, particularly its pursuit of collaborations aimed at preserving the rural character of watershed communities and connecting people of all ages with nature. In Hope, for example, the group recently worked with Maine Farmland Trust to make it possible for a young family with a farming business that produces charcuterie to purchase Taylor Place Farm, 125 acres of farm fields, woodland and blueberry barrens on the southern slope of Philbrook Mountain—in the process, importantly, permanently protecting it as farmland. And in Thomaston, the GRLT worked with the town’s Conservation Committee, Sidecountry Sports, the Oceanside Middle School and other local businesses and organizations to create the Oyster River Multiuse Trail in the Thomaston Town Forest. The trail is suitable not only for hiking but also for mountain biking and will support a new physical education program at the school aimed at using cycling as a tool for students to achieve academic, health and social success.
What Rasmussen has to offer the GRLT at this point in the organization’s more than 30-year history of conservation activism, she believes, are the skills she honed as a project manager with the Scenic Hudson Land Trust.
“I didn’t really see anything to fix at the GRLT as I was interviewing for this job. It seemed more like there was all this passion and energy with a culture that is very strongly grass-roots and very strongly hands-on, but you’ve got to focus that energy. The land trust movement has been changing over time. A lot of land trusts like the GRLT started with people around a kitchen table, a group of dedicated volunteers. Now land trusts and non profits in general, I would say, have had to up their game in order to attract philanthropic dollars because donors want results for the money they provide. They want to be sure that they are giving to an organization that can make an impact, that can pool everybody’s resources and do something that one person couldn’t do on their own. So I saw that potential. I thought that what I could bring to the GRLT would be some focus and some large land trust experience for how a very successful land trust can operate.”
To that end, Rasmussen and the GRLT board and staff are now engaged in a lot of strategic planning. “It’s important to look ahead five years—this will be fun,” she says, acknowledging that for many people strategic planning doesn’t fit their description of “fun.” “But that’s the project manager in me,” she adds with a laugh. “From an organizational point of view, I would like to see the GRLT become financially sustainable so it can do exciting work that inspires people in the watershed to have a strong voice for what happens in their communities.”
After a thoughtful moment, she adds quietly, “In taking this job I just thought maybe I would be at the right place at the right time.” —JW
PHOTO: Julie Wortman
GRLT using conservation easements to benefit St. George
Conservation easements allow people to protect the land they love. This year Georges River Land Trust (GRLT) is working with landowners and local and state-wide partners to protect two very special properties in St. George.
Both sedge wrens and community members are benefitting from the successful conservation of Meadowbrook, a 23-acre parcel on Turkey Cove Road near Otis Cove. Its protection ensures that a variety of birds can count on the wetlands, marsh and upland forest for habitat. Meadowbrook also offers excellent birdwatching and hiking opportunities.
The other property, in Long Cove, is a GRLT conservation easement project currently in process (stay tuned!) and will ensure that a stretch of iconic coastline remains intact.
By holding these conservation easements, Georges River Land Trust is assuming the responsibility for conserving these community gems forever, benefitting local wildlife and the St. George community.
PHOTO: Carol Arness