Jumpstarting the Effort to Protect and Restore Maine’s Coastal Rivers

At the end of 2018, the Ram Island Conservation Fund awarded a $3 million gift to Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s Rivers Initiative—a coast-wide effort to protect and restore Maine’s coastal rivers, the lifeblood of the coast.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact of this gift, which is already being put to work in the Bagaduce, Narraguagus, and Orange River Watersheds, the current focus areas of the Initiative.

The Ram Island Conservation Fund is now comprised of three siblings who grew up on the Maine coast witnessing their parents’ commitment to community service and support of land conservation efforts throughout the state.

Today, these siblings are continuing their parents’ legacy, and like their parents before them, they’re “committed to keeping our names out of the first sentence,” says one member of the Ram Island Conservation Fund. From their view, the natural world and its protection deserves top billing.

What follows is an interview with one member of the Fund, who charts the evolution of the family’s thinking about and support of land conservation, and what inspired their extraordinary gift to the Rivers Initiative.

Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT): Tell me about where you’re from, and what kind of environment you grew up in.

Ram Island Conservation Fund (RAMI): My siblings and I grew up in Newcastle, on the Damariscotta River. In 1973, our parents helped form one of Maine’s first river-based land trusts, the Damariscotta River Association (now the Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust).

Growing up, we were on the water all the time, fishing, or picnicking as a family on Fort Island at the mouth of the Damariscotta. Two of us took the family skiff, the Finest Kind, to our first jobs.

MCHT: So your family’s interest in coastal rivers goes back a ways.

RAMI:  Our interest in the Damariscotta River certainly does.

Our family was fortunate enough to know Ed Myers and his family, long before Ed began his pioneering work in aquaculture in the Damariscotta. My father was also deeply fascinated by the oyster middens found up above the Damariscotta River, and what that revealed about the unique history and ecology of the watershed. Of course, over recent decades the oyster industry has grown tremendously, and has done so much for the peninsula. Go, Pemaquids!

Later, the connection between water quality and land conservation would become clearer to us. You can’t isolate just one piece—a parcel of land, for example—without considering how it’s part of a bigger whole. Land protection has helped protect the water quality, which supports an environment in which the aquaculture industry, for example, can thrive.

MCHT: How did your family’s focus expand from the Damariscotta River area to supporting conservation elsewhere in Maine?

RAMI: Our parents were incredibly involved in their local community, but their knowledge of Maine and interest in its conservation was far-reaching. And as my siblings and I grew up and out of the house to various places in New England, we became more connected to and concerned about other parts of the state.

In the 1990s, our father started meeting with Jay Espy, then president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, to learn about various projects going on throughout the state. Our parents supported many projects over the next couple of decades, some small and some large.

It started to become clear to my parents, siblings, and me that divvying up our efforts according to counties, towns, and other parochial divisions didn’t really accord with what the ecology required. We realized big projects could produce big results when we forged off in our own direction.  

MCHT: How do you see and support Maine’s bigger conservation picture today?

RAMI: Somewhere in there we began to realize that we have to go big or go home. We wanted to support efforts to preserve land in a more holistic matter, to mirror the scale of the interdependent web we’re a part of.

In more recent years, we’ve ended up focusing on a few less obvious areas, farm protection being one, and invasive species being another, where we thought we could have a big impact. I think the Rivers Initiative is in that category also, where money goes to build and protect fish runs, which are essential for Maine’s economy, especially with lobsters.

The Rivers Initiative is unifying the entire coast and includes coastal watersheds affecting a much larger land mass and the health of the Gulf of Maine, which we’re learning has huge impact on our climate and the rest of the world.

MCHT: How does a changing climate factor in to your decision to support conservation efforts?

RAMI: It’s amazing how quickly things are changing. Even though in Maine we’re in a little ecozone of our own, in that it’s relatively cool and moderate here and some of the effect of climate change are buffered, it’s just a matter of degree. This is happening, and it’s going to impact all of us.

Once upon a time, conservation had a socially limited goal. That’s not what conservation is about now. We’re trying to save the planet, and the only way to do it is to preserve the natural systems that allow it to function.

We can’t live outside of the natural world. We can make alliances and move in the same direction to try to shore up the natural environment of Maine.

The vision and generosity of Ram Island Conservation Fund is already realizing a more connected future for Maine’s coastal rivers by advancing fish passage on the Bagaduce, in-stream restoration on the Narraguagus, and improved recreational access to the Orange River watershed and the Bold Coast.

“Since its founding in 1970, Maine Coast Heritage Trust has been working to protect the natural and cultural integrity of the Maine coast through land conservation,” says MCHT President Tim Glidden. “Today, the coast is facing extraordinary threats that call for extraordinary responses—like the holistic, high-impact Rivers Initiative. The Ram Island Conservation Fund understands this. Their gift is already making a powerful and lasting impact on the coast of Maine, and will continue to do so for years and decades to come.”

Learn more about the Rivers Initiative.

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