AUGUSTA — Volunteer Stephen Condon and Kennebec Land Trust interns Jack Daley and Jordan Tanguay followed on the heels of Jean-Luc Theriault who, wielding a chainsaw, left a trail of branches behind for them to collect and throw into the woods away from the newly blazed trail as he made his way, slowly, up Howard Hill.
The four, and a slew of other volunteers, are working on the now city-owned property which, from multiple viewpoints, provides a wooded scenic backdrop to the State House, to establish new trails there, some using sections of older roads and trails on the property, and to remove some of the invasive plant species from the property so they don’t overrun it and crowd out native plants.
A plan for the land envisions it as a “historic forest park” with parking available for people to access it near the State House complex and on Ganneston Drive in Augusta and on the Stevens Common property in Hallowell. The plan includes the creation of several miles of recreational trails and some clearing of trees which organizers said will provide expansive, in some cases cliff side, views of the state Capitol and the river valley surrounding it.
Work, primarily by volunteers, is already underway.
Ansley Sawyer, a member of the Augusta Conservation Commission who is serving as a steward of Howard Hill, said so far 35 people have volunteered to help ready the land to be converted from its current state to more of a formal park with marked trails and improved public access. Of those, 10 people are already working on preliminary trail work and removal of some of the invasive species of plants which have made the park home.
On a recent day Theriault, stewardship director for Winthrop-based Kennebec Land Trust, which turned the 164-acre Howard Hill property over to the city last year, with a conservation easement in place preventing it from ever being developed other than for recreational uses, used his chainsaw to clear branches and other growth through a clearing and into the woods, then started to head uphill, following a trail of orange and pink strips of plastic he and Sawyer had previously tied to trees, marking the planned location of trails Sawyer said will, when they’re done, provide loops that run up and around the steeply-hilled property.
Sawyer said three loop trails have been tagged on the top of the hill and they hope to make a loop that goes along the top of the cliffs on the property and then back down to the bottom of the cliffs.
Daley, of Boston, and Tanguay, of Fort Kent, as well as Condon, of Litchfield, picked up what Theriault left in his wake and cast it aside into the woods.
Condon, who used to do trail work for the Appalachian Mountain Club at Gulf Hagas and now maintains trails at and is steward of the Webber-Rogers Farmstead Conservation Area in Litchfield, said he volunteers simply because “I just love to work on the trails. I love to be outside, and dig and do things.”
The hands-on work is taking place on the second and fourth Wednesdays each month, with volunteers usually meeting at 1 p.m. at the top of Ganneston Drive, where an old road provides access to the upper portion of the Howard Hill property.
Leif Dahlin, the city’s community services director, said it’ll probably take a year or two of work before Howard Hill can be opened, as a park, to the public for hiking and other recreation.
“Howard Hill is a work in progress and it’s going to take time to properly manage this marvelous asset,” Dahlin said. He said a critical piece will be providing public access and parking for the site. He said the parking lot will have to be designed and permitted and will need to be funded. He said no cost estimates have been done yet. But he noted initial engineering work could be paid for with part of $100,000 in stewardship funds the land trust gave to the city when it turned the land over to the city. And he and Sawyer said Howard Hill advocates are expected to do fundraisers to garner funds to pay for the parking lot and other work. Sawyer said they hope to raise the funds privately so the park will not require funding from city taxpayers.
Work planned to help conserve the property actually involves the removal of some plant life, invasive species not native to the site, which Theriault said hampers the healthy biodiversity of the land.
So volunteers, following a plan laid out by officials of the Maine Natural Areas Program, are working to remove some invasive plants, including multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, Asiatic bittersweet, and Autumn olive, from selected areas of the proposed parkland.
Volunteers try to pull the targeted invasive plants up by the roots, to help prevent them from regrowing. But Tanguay said it is inevitable that some of the plants will return.
“Hopefully taking the roots out prevents them from coming back, but, with seeds and everything, some of it will come back,” Tanguay said. “It’s a constant battle. That’s what management is.”
Daley said after pulling the plants up, they are hung upside down, to further decrease the chances they’ll regrow.
Tanguay is also conducting research on ticks on the property as part of her internship with Kennebec Land Trust, a nonprofit organization which will mark its 30th anniversary Aug. 19 at Camp Winnebego on Echo Lake in Fayette.
She said her project, in which she collects different varieties of ticks from the property and sends them off in vials for testing to see what diseases they may carry, is meant to figure out the density of ticks and what varieties are most common on Howard Hill. She said that information will likely be used to provide educational materials for park users, on what types of ticks are present in the to-be-developed park.
The property once was owned by William Howard Gannett, who in the 1890s bought some 450 acres including Howard Hill — where he created Ganneston Park. The park included gardens, ponds, carriage paths and trails he opened to the public so they could enjoy the natural setting as his family did in their log cabin lodge on the site, Camp Comfort, so named because Gannett was publisher of Comfort Magazine, the first American periodical to reach a circulation of more than 1 million.
The Gannetts had a large, apparently cliff side treehouse on the property, though no signs of the treehouse remain.
The plan for the city-owned land comes after years of repeated criticism of the land’s value from Gov. Paul LePage.
The city was given the land last year by Kennebec Land Trust, which bought the property that provides a largely undeveloped backdrop to the Maine State House, from local attorney Sumner Lipman in 2015.
The land trust purchased the property — named for the family of Capt. James Howard, one of the founders of Augusta — for about $925,000, even though its city appraisal for tax purposes was $171,000. The land trust raised money to pay for the project, and it used $163,500 in Land for Maine’s Future money to help fund the purchase. The Land for Maine’s Future funding was reduced to that amount, from the previously proposed amount of $337,500, following criticism of the acquisition by LePage, who also had withheld voter-approved conservation bonds for the project temporarily.
Sawyer praised those who have agreed to volunteer their time at the planned park, which will be run by the city’s parks department but where, he said, volunteer efforts are, and will continue to be, needed to help prepare and maintain the park. People interested in volunteering may contact organizers by email at HowardHill.Augusta@gmail.com.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647