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The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Derelict farm to estuarine sanctuary, 1978 to 1986

Posted by
Mort Mather
| August 31, 1986 | Filed under: Culture

This "History of the Project" was written by Mort Mather around the time the Wells Reserve was dedicated in 1986. Some minor formatting has been done to the originally typewritten document.

Interest in having the land now encompassed within the bounds of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve preserved for the public good dates back to the early 1960s. At that time the value of salt marshes was beginning to be more fully understood. Studies showed that two-thirds of the commercially important fish depend in some stage in their lives on estuaries. Estuaries are also important areas for commercial development; as the population increases scenic areas near water are under increased pressure for residential development. In the sixties man-made development was filling marshes at an alarming rate. If left unchecked, this development would do serious damage to our fisheries and eliminate most of the coastal habitat for wildlife, endangering more and more species.

In Maine the federal government and the state government reached a cooperative agreement to protect the major marshes along the southern coast. The state would protect the Scarboro marsh, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would protect nine other significant marshes for a multi-unit 3000-acre national wildlife refuge, of which the largest is the Webhannet River marsh in Wells. Most of the Webhannet marsh has been protected as part of the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, officially dedicated on June 27, 1970 in ceremonies attended by Walter Hickel, then Secretary of the Interior.

In the mid-1960s George C. Lord II approached the State of Maine with the suggestion that the state purchase a major part of Laudholm Farm, including 1800 feet of beach, for use by the public. He should be credited with the foresight to understand the value of this land for the public good. In 1969 the first 199 acres of Laudholm Farm were purchased by the Maine Department of Conservation.

Ruth Howard calls attention to Laudholm Farm

The acquisition of the remaining 250 acres of Laudholm Farm began in the mid-70s when Ruth Howard, a neighbor, became concerned that the beautiful fields and woods sloping down to the salt marsh would be developed as house lots. The concern was not unfounded, as the fields on the landward side of the buildings had already been granted subdivision approval for eleven one-acre lots.

There were meetings with other concerned citizens several times during the late 70s, and at one point a group went to Augusta to make the rounds of state and private agencies interested in environmental and historic preservation to see if there were any sources of funds that might make purchase possible. All efforts ended in frustration until August 1980 when a letter went out to all environmental organizations and coastal towns in Maine from the State Planning Office (SPO) "Do you think your community would be interested in having an area of coastal shoreland purchased and managed as a natural area for research, education, and recreation? Local officials and interested citizens working in partnership with conservation organizations and state agencies have the opportunity to acquire and manage one or more areas which offer significant opportunities for scientific research and education. As much as two million dollars is available from the federal government for Maine to acquire and manage an area if a broadly supported proposal is prepared."

The Town of Wells seeks a sanctuary

The Wells selectmen responded to the SPO suggesting that all of the 1600 acres be considered as a national estuarine sanctuary. (Congress has since changed the name of the program from estuarine sanctuary to estuarine research reserve.) Their proposal read: "All of this particular coastal section of land is presently owned by the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Preserve, except for the Laudholm Farm estate. Purchase of this tract of land would complete the missing piece of the puzzle."

"There has been some discussion with the heirs and developers, which speculatively appears to put the ballpark unofficial limits in the 1.5 to 1.8 million dollar category for purchase."

"At this time the Wells board of selectmen and town officials and citizens are eager to pursue the Laudholm Farm project. We would be most willing to complete whatever grant forms are necessary in order to initiate the process."

Forty sites were submitted to the state for consideration. A statewide committee reviewed all of the proposals and ultimately selected three: Machias Bay, Marsh River, and Drakes Island-Laudholm. The Machias Bay and Marsh River sites were subsequently abandoned because of lack of local support.

Local support for the Laudholm site was exceptionally strong as reported in the York County Coast Star after the public hearing on the project: "They came not only from Wells, but from many surrounding communities and nearby New Hampshire. They were average citizens and prominent government officials; they were lawyers, scientists, senior citizens, and high school students. There were more than 100 of them in the Wells High School auditorium, but they came with only one purpose in mind — to support the proposed Laudholm Farm Estuary Sanctuary."

Laudholm Trust forms in 1982

The committee working informally on the project incorporated as Laudholm Trust in March 1982 "to preserve land forever for conservation of water, wetland, beaches, farmlands, forests, wildlife, and open space. To keep these natural resources forever available to the public for education, research, and other compatible purposes." The Internal Revenue Service determined that the Trust was eligible to receive contributions that could be deducted to the full extent of the tax code under section 501(c)(3).

Fundraising had already begun with the World's Largest Raffle, which might better have been termed the World's Longest Raffle, as it went on for sixteen months with fourteen monthly drawings culminating in the grand prize of a trip for two to the Caribbean Island of Monserrat. The raffle raised $20,000 and spread awareness of the project to many.

In June 1982 the voters of Wells voted by more than a three to one margin to create the Wells National Estuarine Sanctuary, a vote that was necessary before the federal grant could be approved. The first federal grant of $580,000 was allocated in September. Another $200,000 was allocated the following September, but a project of this size could not be accomplished without some bumps in the road.

Raising funds in a hurry

In December 1983 the State was notified that the first $580,000 grant would be withdrawn three months before it was scheduled to expire. With the help of Senator William S. Cohen the early deadline was rescinded on January 5, 1984, with the stipulation that the $580,000 would have to be matched by March 31 of that year. Governor Brennan allocated $250,000 of state funds that were available for acquisition of land to the purchase of Laudholm. With that grant Laudholm Trust was still $106,000 short of the funds needed.

It was a very busy three months, but when the deadline came the Trust had raised $130,000 in cash and pledges. (The Nature Conservancy had offered to cover the pledges with cash if necessary to make them eligible to match the federal grant.) This amazing fund-raising accomplishment is even more amazing in light of the fact that there was only a verbal purchase and sales agreement with the owners of the property. There was another problem that was not widely known. The project manager in Washington had said that he didn't think that an agreement could be reached between the estuarine sanctuary program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That agreement was essential to approval of the site for a national estuarine sanctuary.

The entire Maine Congressional Delegation has been very supportive of the project as evidenced in this quote from a letter signed by Senators Cohen and Mitchell and Representatives McKernan and Snowe: "We are writing as a delegation to express in the strongest terms our support for the proposed Wells National Estuarine Sanctuary project, which is under the auspices of the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management." The letter was addressed to Secretary of Commerce, Malcolm Baldridge, and went on to urge his office to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to resolve the cooperative management issue. Deputy Secretary of Commerce, Clarence Brown, was able to resolve the issue.

Jack Ketchum accepted the challenge of heading up the campaign to raise the funds necessary from the private sector. The campaign goal was $950,000 by the end of 1985. He accepted this challenge in January 1984, the most difficult period in the Trust's brief history. He must be admired for his courage in putting his reputation in jeopardy. His prestige and expertise were essential ingredients to the success that was realized in the short term to match the first federal grant and in the long term when the goal of the campaign was reached by the end of 1985. The ultimate goal was reached on April 24, 1986 when the purchase of Laudholm Farm was completed.

It wasn't until July 1984 that a purchase and sales agreement was signed with the Lord family members. The purchase of the first 147 acres was completed October 24 for $600,000. At that time Laudholm Trust's cash was drawn down to less than $100, underscoring the importance of the many small contributions that have brought success. On the morning of October 24 the Trust had exceeded the amount essential for the purchase by less than four family memberships.

A cliffhanger all the way

By the end of the scheduled campaign on December 31, 1985 the original goal of $950,000 had been exceeded by $50,000, but the funds for the purchase of the remainder of the farm, which included 100 acres and the buildings, were still in doubt. The Town of Wells had contributed half of the land it owned near Wells Harbor, but the appraisals and surveys still needed to be done. If the value of the conservation easement on that land turned out to be less than estimated, more cash — perhaps as much as $250,000 — from the private sector would be needed.

In March the project manager in Washington asked us to negotiate an extension of the deadline on the purchase and sales agreement. David Keeley, the person with infinite patience and considerable skill who has been in charge of the project at the state level, informed them that an extension was impossible.

It was a cliffhanger all the way, but on April 24, David Keeley drove to Portland with a check for the federal funds. Herb Hartman from the Maine Department of Conservation brought a check from Augusta for the state's $250,000 share, and I drove from Wells with the Trust's share. As checks were passed and documents signed in the offices of Verrill and Dana, it was anticlimactic. So much had gone before; more important, there is so much to look forward to.

Laudholm Trust has paid $510,000 toward the purchase of this property that has been referred to as the "missing piece of the puzzle," the "bridge between the state and federal land," and the "keystone to the estuarine sanctuary." Those funds come from over 2000 individuals, families, businesses, corporations, and foundations who had the foresight and courage to contribute to a project that might not succeed but was of such value that the risk was well worth taking.

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