In the late 1980s, Les Hyde had only just returned from a sabbatical year spent studying English conservation policy firsthand, when he found himself addressing a gathering of the then fledgling Georges River Land Trust about what he had learned.
“I went to England because I was looking for ways to keep our beautiful midcoast beautiful — about how to stop development,” says Hyde, who recently retired after more than 30 years as Professor of Forestry and Environmental Education with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “The English had instituted a public planning act after World War II that gave county governments a lot of power to limit development if it threatened National Parks and ‘areas of outstanding beauty.’”
Hyde points out that the English law capitalized on the fact that the country’s urban population had survived destruction of the country’s transportation infrastructure in large part because farms were so close to the city — so retaining ‘green belts’ of open land and farms between towns was at that time an acknowledged value.
But Hyde was also impressed by the conservation role played by the well-used 25,000 miles of footpaths lacing through the British countryside. “I told the Land Trust audience that if people are going to love the land and want to protect it, they’ve got to get out into it,” he recalls.
So he made a proposal: “Let’s make a footpath from Frye Mountain in Searsmont all the way to Port Clyde,” basically the full length of the Georges River watershed.
David Getchel took the idea — at first blush merely a fantastic dream — and ran with it, creating what is today the 40-mile Georges River Highland Path.
“We didn’t have an ancient rights-of-way heritage to build on like they have in England,” Hyde notes, “so Dave created a ‘good will’ policy in which property owners could agree to let the path cross their land unless and until their good will was abused.”
Getchel was aided in his efforts by Maine law, which provides limited liability protection for landowners who allow recreation.
Continuing the watershed footpath into St. George is the next step in realizing Hyde’s original proposal.
“The first trail down here was in the town forest,” Hyde points out. This loop can be accessed from the Kinney Woods Road. Then came the good will agreement for a trail across the Skogland property to link the spring at Wiley’s Corner with state-owned Fort Point on the St. George River, the site of a fort built in 1809 to protect river commerce.
“For many years Fort Point was inaccessible except by water,” Hyde recalls. “I would take Tanglewood campers there by canoe. It was a very secluded spot.”
Currently the Land Trust and the St. George Conservation Commission are collaborating on creating the Jones’ Brook Trail, which would link Fort Point to the town forest. Other projects are also in the works. Progress is slow, but just about 25 years since Hyde, Getchel and their many conservation-minded partners and friends started working on ways for people to get out into the watershed, it is clear the dream remains alive and well. —JW