An Introduction to the History and Staff of Harpswell Heritage Land Trust
By Doug Warren
Formed as an offshoot of the Harpswell Historical Society in 1983, Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) today is at the forefront of the effort to preserve and protect the town’s bountiful natural resources and rich cultural heritage.
The land trust has conserved more than 1,700 acres in Harpswell and maintains 19 preserves and trails with public access – a vital resource for those seeking the calming benefits of the natural world. Conserving land for future generations is the core of our work.
More than 200 volunteers help HHLT fulfill its mission to “preserve and protect Harpswell’s natural resources, cultural heritage and access to the outdoors through targeted conservation, responsible stewardship and education.” That emphasis on education is built upon dozens of public programs offered annually and extends to the local elementary school, where all grade levels learn about nature each year through HHLT class offerings.
“With its with stellar community outreach, energetic volunteers and active education programs, HHLT has become a vital part of Harpswell’s civic infrastructure,” said Tim Glidden, president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the state’s biggest land trust. “I can’t imagine the town without it!”
During its 37 years of existence, HHLT has passed many important milestones. In 1992, it formally separated from the Historical Society, created a Board of Trustees and held its first town-wide membership drive. In 1998, under the direction of its Board president, the late Walter “Doc” Phillips, HHLT held its first Nature Day Camp for children. The camp introduces children to a variety of habitats in Harpswell through hands-on exploration and fun. It has expanded several times over the years and remains very popular.
The land trust hired its first employee, executive director Thomas “Spike” Haible in 2001. In 2002-2003, HHLT’s Special Places for Harpswell Campaign raised $1.7 million to buy Skolfield Shores Preserve and Johnson Field Preserve at Mackerel Cove, both signature open spaces that were threatened with imminent development.
In 2006-2007, after years of meeting in members’ kitchens and living rooms and, later, rented office space, HHLT opened its own headquarters building on Harpswell Neck Road on land donated by Bill and Jomay Barron. The facility, which includes a community room available for use by nonprofit groups, was built by former HHLT trustee Ralph Harvey “Chip” Black.
Today, HHLT is supported by annual donations from more than 800 families from Harpswell and beyond that share the organization’s goal of maintaining the town’s natural beauty and quality of life. Like all nonprofits, the land trust relies largely on its volunteers and financial support from the local community to succeed in its mission.
Over the years, HHLT has become more professional, thanks to a dedicated and very active volunteer board, now headed by President Lynn Knight, and through achieving accreditation by the national Land Trust Alliance in 2015. It is currently in the process of having that accreditation renewed.
Current Executive Director Reed Coles’ experience in public policy and as a state legislator proved invaluable to HHLT when he took on the role in 2005. “Reed has brought his lifelong love of the land together with organizational skills honed from many diverse experiences to build one of Maine’s premier land trusts,” said Glidden.
In 2012, HHLT hired Julia McLeod as its first Outreach Coordinator (now Outreach Director) and she immediately had a major impact on the organization. She has instituted hands-on science education programs at every grade level in Harpswell Community School. She has expanded and promoted HHLT’s extensive public programs and seasonal events. She leads the popular Nature Day Camp and she has updated the ways the land trust communicates with its members and the larger Harpswell community through email and printed newsletters and an updated website.
“It is difficult to describe adequately Julia’s impact on HHLT’s activities and standing with our community,” said Coles. “Her creativity, thoughtfulness, energy and inclusiveness have vastly expanded our presence in town and beyond. And I believe Julia’s work will have a substantial impact on future generations of Harpswell’s leaders, to the benefit of all.”
With a growing list of conserved properties and responsibilities, HHLT has brought three other part-time employees on board in recent years. These include Development Director Janice Thompson, Stewardship Coordinator Priscilla Seimer and Communications and Membership Assistant Katie Neal.
Janice Thompson is working with the Board of Trustees to build a deeper foundation of financial support for the trust. “This organization enjoys a growing membership and generous donations from the community,” Thompson said. “I am honored to be part of it.”
Priscilla Seimer brings years of experience on trails and as a naturalist to her work caring for HHLT preserves and trails. She works with volunteer stewards to make sure the organization’s trails and preserves are safe and welcoming to visitors. She also makes sure that the conservation easements the land trust holds on private property are monitored to maintain their benefits to clean water, wildlife and the people of Harpswell.
Katie Neal uses her nonprofit experience, passion for serving the community in which her family lives and love of Harpswell to support HHLT with administrative duties.
HHLT and its staff and board are deeply committed to being an inclusive, open and responsive organization. Free public programs and trails are open to all. Scholarships are always available for paid programming and services. The organization actively seeks out and listens to feedback from the community and continually strives for equity and inclusion. Members are welcome at any level.
HHLT depends on the generosity of its members and other supporters to meet its expenses, manage its preserves, monitor its easements, provide educational resources and undertake new projects. To become a member, or renew your membership, please go to hhltmaine.org/donate.