April 06, 2020

Preserve Sears Island while promoting economy

It’s Columbus Day 2006 and Sears Island glistens in the dramatic autumn sunlight. On the old apple tree trail, still mostly green, the light is dappled, warm and inviting. Ocher grasses in the estuary, touched by red, blaze today as if on fire. Not far offshore, white sails, stunning in their contrast with the marine blue water, bend to the westerly breeze.

This is Sears Island today. Beyond today, it’s easy to imagine groups of children taking salinity tests in the marsh, talking excitedly with a teacher about the web of life, meeting in an open field to watch migrating birds, or tracking fox along a woodland trail. It’s easy to imagine a more extensive trail system with scenic overlook stations and interpretive aids. It’s even easy to imagine people some day arriving in Searsport by boat from Rockland and leaving by train for Baxter State Park after visiting Sears Island.

It’s easy to imagine all this because these images fit so naturally into the Sears Island of today. And this vision of Sears Island – as the vibrant economic and ecologic center of Maine’s sustainable nature-based tourism – is offered by an affinity group participating in the Governor’s Sears Island Planning Initiative. In fact, this is the only detailed vision for the future of Sears Island presented to date and the only vision that has considered its economic impact.

This affinity group has the plan, the resources and the will to help implement such an inspiring future for Sears Island.

“Prosperity, Preservation, and Port: a permanent vision for Sears Island and Mack Point” proposes an economically productive and ecologically sustainable future for Sears Island that: (1) creates direct and indirect economic benefit for the town of Searsport, the Penobscot Bay region and the State of Maine; (2) greatly improves public access for low-impact uses; (3) provides public education about the environment; and (4) maintains virtually all of the island in its present undeveloped, natural condition.

Gov. John Baldacci’s Sears Island Planning Initiative (SIPI) is a unique opportunity to determine the future of Sears Island and resolve some 30 years of public controversy. SIPI is a broadly inclusive public participation process that seeks a recommendation for the island’s management.

Friends of Sears Island, Protect Sears Island, Penobscot Bay Alliance, Coastal Mountains Land Trust, Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, Islesboro Islands Trust and many local residents from Searsport, Stockton Springs, Belfast and other surrounding towns, all of whom are members of the Sears Island Planning Initiative’s Steering Committee, champion the following Sears Island improvements to satisfy its conservation future and establish it as an exemplary eco-tourism asset:

. trails of differing levels of challenge, from handicapped-accessible to narrow, wild footpaths;

. safe beach access points, secured from erosion;

. composting toilet facilities at trailheads and beach access points;

. signs and kiosks to provide natural and human history interpretation;

. a building at the northern end of the island, up to 2,000 square-feet in footprint, sited and constructed in the most environmentally responsible manner, to provide a visitor welcome and information center, education and stewardship facilities, and potentially the offices of a natural resource agency; and

. a parking area screened with native vegetation and sufficient in capacity to provide for expected levels of visitation.

It has been estimated that these improvements will cost $1.1 million and will contribute nearly $2 million in annual economic activity for the region, including five new jobs. These minor improvements to the island can be expected to bring 23,000 visitors to participate in educational programs, walk the trails, wander along the shore, launch kayaks, fish from the granite dike, cross-country ski or simply take time to enjoy the birds, the fern meadows, the old fields and the mature forests.

This vision is founded on two core recommendations: the entirety of Sears Island should be permanently committed to conservation, outdoor recreation, and environmental education; and Mack Point, as one of the three ports of Maine, should be fully utilized, enhanced and expanded.

In this scenario, Mack Point will continue to be an important economic asset, from the Penobscot Bay region through central and northern Maine, and will continue to complement the other principal ports of the state, Portland and Eastport. To perform this crucial transportation role, the port facilities at Mack Point will be expanded when demand for additional facilities is demonstrated, utilizing the best available environmental practices, and facilities will be enhanced with new shipment handling equipment and technologies as appropriate to serve Maine needs.

Mack Point will become a thriving model of environmentally integrated inter-modal transportation, fulfilling and perhaps going beyond the promise of the $18 million Maine taxpayers invested here in 2001 after port plans for Sears Island were terminated.

Sears Island will become a conservation, recreation and education mecca, supporting the regional economy. An ecological and cultural inventory will be conducted on the entire island and a management plan prepared to assure that all improvements avoid degradation of the ecological and cultural resources of the island while providing visitors with the greatest exposure to opportunities for experiencing and learning about those resources.

The port supported; the island protected; a win/win scenario.

Becky Bartovics is a resident of North Haven. Marietta Ramsdell is a resident of Searsport.

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