By Rich Knox
Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), a statewide land conservation organization, is working to assure permanent public access to the majority of 175-acre Clark Island in St. George. MCHT has entered into an option agreement with the current landowners, which gives it until March of 2020 to raise the $4.8 million required to purchase and assure its long-term future as a public preserve.
Clark Island, home to only a few residences, has long been a destination for people who live and visit the mid-coast region as a place to walk, hike, and beachcomb while enjoying spectacular natural surroundings. Most visitors assume the island is public and protected from development, when, in fact, it is privately owned, and public access is not guaranteed for the future. The current landowners hope to sell Clark Island to MCHT to conserve it, and ensure that the tradition of public access and recreation they have voluntarily granted for decades will be permanently assured.
Joanne O’Shea, owner of the nearby Craignair Inn & Restaurant supports the conservation effort and says it benefits her customers and her business. “The Clark Island landowners have always graciously invited our guests to enjoy the island, allowing access to the beaches, the swimming hole and the many trails. Many of our return guests stay with us specifically because of the beauty and diversity the island offers. It is our feeling, as well as that of our neighbors here in the Village of Clark Island, that MCHT’s conservation of the island would benefit the area tremendously.”
If successful, this effort will result in 85 per cent of the 175-acre island being permanently protected, with 120 acres secured for public access. “This area would be a wonderful recreational asset for the townspeople; I hope the voters will help support its acquisition, as they have done for other MCHT projects, like High Island,” says Richard Bates, chair of the St. George Select Board.
Clark Island has a long and fascinating history, with original settlement dating back to the 1780s, and quarrying operations beginning in the 1830s. By 1890, 100 stone cutters and their families, plus supporting crews of quarrymen and sculptors, along with 51 children, lived on Clark Island. In 1892, the town of St. George paid for a granite causeway from the mainland to Clark Island, and by 1900, 400 people—300 of them stone cutters—were employed in the quarry operation. Today the island is mostly undeveloped with just a few remaining residences.
More recently, the island has been a destination for those seeking unique midcoast recreational experiences. Visitors can access the island by boat or the granite causeway from the mainland to enjoy hiking, birding, hunting, beachcombing, swimming, kayaking and cross-country skiing. The island trails have been utilized in the past for organized birding trips and annual artist retreats.
As one of the few remaining unfragmented coastal habitat blocks in the region, Clark Island supports a diversity of marine and terrestrial wildlife. Much of the intertidal salt marsh, mudflat, and beach natural community types are designated as Significant Tidal Waterfowl and Wading Bird Habitat by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; functional vernal pools occur throughout the island; and there is a rich diversity of both breeding and migratory bird species that utilize the island throughout the year.
MCHT is grateful that the owners agreed to sell the property for $400,000 less than appraised value to help jump-start fundraising efforts. MCHT seeks to raise an additional $4.4 million by March of 2020 to purchase the 120 acres on Clark, and to assure long-term stewardship of the property. MCHT will be reaching out to individuals and organizations, as well as to state and federal conservation agencies to help meet the goal. Those interested in donating to the effort should contact David Warren at MCHT (607-4365).
(Knox is Director of Communications, Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Maine Coast Heritage Trust is a statewide land conservation organization committed to protecting the character of Maine. Since 1970, Maine Coast Heritage Trust has helped conserve more than 147,000 acres in Maine, from the Isles of Shoals to Cobscook Bay, including more than 300 entire coastal islands. For more information, visit www.mcht.org.)
PHOTOS: Ken Woisard Photography