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Harpswell Heritage Land Trust embarks on leadership transition

Originally published in the Harpswell Anchor

Harpswell Heritage Land Trust will embark on a leadership transition Feb. 1, as the second executive director in the history of the organization moves into a half-time role and HHLT’s outreach director takes on the title of acting executive director.

Reed Coles, HHLT’s executive director for the last 16-plus years, will serve as its director of lands and stewardship for up to a year, then retire. After nearly a decade as outreach director, Julia McLeod will become acting executive director.

Coles, 77, wants to reduce his responsibilities and workload. “I need more rest,” he said. “I want to have time to do other things that I don’t have time to do right now.”

But he has more to give to the organization. He wants to focus on laying out his vision for future conservation possibilities in Harpswell and finalizing projects in progress, including a $560,000 campaign to conserve a 57-acre parcel on Great Island with a half-mile of shorefront.

Harpswell Heritage Land Trust Executive Director Reed Coles will hand over the leadership of the organization to Outreach Director Julia McLeod on Feb. 1. Photo by J.W. Oliver.

He believes McLeod has the drive and skills to lead HHLT — to carry out its mission and strengthen it as an organization.

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for Julia’s talents and abilities,” Coles said. If he didn’t have a clear successor, he might be hesitant to leave. Instead, he’s excited. “I can’t wait, to be honest,” he said with a laugh.

Coles and McLeod both said that they have worked more like co-leaders of the organization than as supervisor and employee.

“I’ve always been very involved in all the big-picture stuff at the land trust — strategic planning, hiring, development, budgeting, annual work planning,” McLeod said.

Around September, McLeod and the HHLT Board of Trustees will evaluate the success of the transition and, if all goes well, drop the “acting” from her title.

Coles navigated a similar process when he started at the land trust and expects the same outcome this time. “I think that Julia will be confirmed and everyone will be very pleased with her work,” he said.

As he reflects on his time at the helm of the organization, Coles feels most proud of HHLT’s accomplishments in the areas of conservation, accreditation, education and finances.

HHLT more than doubled the amount of land it holds in preserves. “We’re expanding the amount of undeveloped shorefront that will always be undeveloped in Harpswell,” Coles said. “We’re protecting critical natural areas and natural resources, such as wildlife habitat, groundwater, marine water quality, clam flats.”

HHLT attained accreditation through the National Land Trust Accreditation Commission in 2015. The distinction means the organization follows best practices in the industry. It tells the community “they can have confidence in what we do,” Coles said.

HHLT has expanded its Nature Day Camp and other educational efforts, for which Coles credits McLeod. Finally, the organization has strengthened its financial position.

Coles grew up in Harpswell and arrived at HHLT after a career in public policy. He worked in economic development for New York City in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, he served 10 years as a member of the Maine House of Representatives, devoting much of his attention to environmental concerns.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he volunteered with the town as chair of the Board of Appeals, the Comprehensive Planning Committee and the Land Use Committee. He joined the HHLT board in 2002, then signed on as executive director in 2005.

Wendy Batson, president of HHLT’s Board of Trustees, said that the combination of Coles’ roots in Harpswell with his knowledge and skills allowed him to become a transformative leader for the organization. She called his tenure an “unbelievably productive period of time.”

McLeod, 41, arrived at the land trust in 2012 and set out to build its educational programs. When she started, HHLT’s Nature Day Camp consisted of one week of half-day sessions. Last summer, there were 12 weeks of camp and a waitlist with more than 100 kids on it.

The rest of the year, McLeod collaborates with Harpswell Community School to bring hands-on, outdoor science education to students in every grade.

The program seeks to establish an “early connection to nature and to Harpswell” and to give students “an understanding of the world around them” that will foster lifelong support for conservation, McLeod said.

In the area of communications, McLeod worked with volunteers to expand and modernize HHLT’s efforts from a biannual print newsletter to frequent updates through several mediums, such as social media and email newsletters.

Batson said that HHLT has grown from 537 members in 2011 to 928 in 2021, a 73% uptick owing in part to McLeod’s efforts. Whenever the board has set goals in areas like membership and programming, “she’s hit every one of the marks,” Batson said.

“We’re really confident that Julia is going to continue to take us in the direction we want to go,” Batson added.

While HHLT’s mission will not change, McLeod has a few ideas for how to improve on the way it fulfills that mission.

She intends to emphasize the values of diversity, equity and inclusion — to “consider how we can serve a broader swath of the population,” she said. She wants to support staff and make the organization “a model of how to treat people.” Finally, she wants to look at what role the land trust can play in two issues of growing importance in Harpswell: climate change and access to the shore.

A native Mainer and graduate of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, McLeod was previously the stewardship coordinator and educator for the Damariscotta Lake Watershed Association. She lives on a farm in Bowdoin with her husband and their children.

Her decade at HHLT and role in the organization position her uniquely to lead it into the future.

“I have a strong connection to the families of Harpswell — I teach every student in Harpswell Community School every year,” she said. She knows leaders of Harpswell organizations through the land trust’s partnerships, she knows the land trust’s many volunteers, she knows the land trust’s properties.

Coles sees this background as crucial for the organization’s next leader. “We’re a one-town, small-town land trust, and that kind of local knowledge, of local connection, I think, is essential for us to be successful,” he said.