The Universal Notebook: Access to the wild suburbs

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People don’t generally appreciate it when folks from away weigh in on local affairs, so I will withhold my thoughts about the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s refusal to allow the Shore Road Pathway to go through its Robinson’s Woods preserve. I’m sure they mean well and are only trying to remain faithful to the donor’s wishes with regard to access.

I must confess, however, that I have long been of two minds about the preservation of wild and open spaces. On the one hand, conservation easements and land trusts are great ways to preserve open space and public access. On the other, do we really want the present dictating to the future what it can and cannot do with land? Eventually, it becomes the dead telling the living what to do.

But then I’m pretty sure the late Gov. Percival P. Baxter wouldn’t approve of a lot of things now permitted in his “Forever Wild” gift of Baxter State Park.

I was thinking about this when Carolyn and Rudy, our faithful (to her) canine companion, and I went down to Littlejohn Island to explore the Littlejohn Island Preserve, a 23-acre point of land owned by the Royal River Conservation Trust. We’ve lived in Yarmouth for 30 years and we had never been to the preserve, which turned out to something of a less developed Mackworth Island – walking path, scenic views of the bay and islands, swimmable shore turning to bluffs, woods, fields, berries, birdsong – just beautiful.

We went down to check out the Littlejohn Preserve because a week before a friend had complained that every time she went there, a woman would appear from down a long driveway to say, “You do know this is a private road, don’t you?”

People tend to be protective of their privacy and of their privileges, especially the wealthy. Yarmouth, like Cape Elizabeth, is a fairly upscale little suburb. Cousins Island is its rural shore front, secluded Littlejohn its best-kept secret. And even people who live on the front side of Littlejohn don’t always know what to make of some of the folks down the end of Pemasong Lane. Think Prouts Neck without the locked gates.

“Can’t you read. Can’t you see. This is private property.”

These words from the Babes in Toyland song “The Forest of No Return” ran through my head as we walked down the road and into the preserve, but other than a few “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” signs there was nothing and no one to give offense except an unfortunate development of unnecessarily large homes.

When the out-of-state family that had owned the north end of Littlejohn for generations decided to subdivide in 2006, it generously made the 23-acre preserve available to the Royal River Conservation Trust for a song, which the trust got from a Mellon foundation.

Parking has been something of an issue for the preserve. The trust website instructs visitors to park at the very end of the road, but in a bow to neighbors, who apparently complained about the public parking on their private road, there is now a more recent sign that asks visitors to park outside the gates of the subdivision and to walk the two tenths of a mile to the preserve and its half-mile of shorefront. Not a problem, but there’s only room for about two cars to park.

Parking and access to the shore, of course, are also issues these days at Higgins Beach and Scarborough Beach. We don’t want a proliferation of seaside parking lots, of course, but we do want to make the beautiful places in Maine more accessible. Maybe remote parking lots and shuttle vans, something like the arrangement Chebeague Island has to park on Route 1 and bus people to the ferry dock.

Now that we know about Littlejohn Island Preserve, we plan to go there often. These little vestigial wilds are what make cities and suburbs habitable. And reclaiming the Maine landscape for the people of Maine, as the Royal River Conservation Trust has been doing, is as worthwhile an endeavor as there is at the state or local level.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.