Sebago Lake at Twilight

Clean Water Champions (2022)

Image Credit: John McLaughlin

OSI & Sebago Clean Waters mark a milestone in innovative efforts to tap forests for clean water.

In a region where forests face myriad threats — including climate change, invasive species, development, overharvesting, and an aging cohort of woodlot owners — the recent protection of more than 12,000 acres in western Maine is very big news.

The Crooked River Headwaters project, several years in the making, highlights an unusual collaboration among conservation groups, a pair of landowners, and a water utility. It also strengthened the capacity of local land trusts to achieve similar deals in the future, while introducing a new and creative funding strategy for land conservation — setting the stage for more successes down the line.

Of the project’s 12,268 acres now permanently protected through a new conservation easement, 7,500 acres are located along the Crooked River, the largest tributary of Sebago Lake. Protection of the forested land that drains into the lake, the source of drinking water for one in six Maine residents and 11 communities including the city of Portland, is the objective of Sebago Clean Waters (SCW) — a coalition of which the Open Space Institute (OSI) is a founding member.

The Sebago Watershed provides drinking water for 1 in 6 Maine residents.
The Sebago Watershed provides drinking water for 1 in 6 Maine residents.
Image Credit: Jerry Monkman for Sebago Clean Waters

“Conserving the Sebago Lake watershed is of particular importance for the lake’s water quality,” says OSI’s Jennifer Melville, vice president for conservation grants and SCW executive committee member. “This lake, one of roughly 50 public surface water supplies in the nation that require no filtration, is a model for forest and water protection. The land, trees, and forest are doing the work of filtering the water.”

The successful project moves SCW significantly closer to its goal of ensuring that 25 percent of the watershed, or 35,000 additional acres, is conserved by 2032. OSI has also helped local land trusts protect 3,400 acres toward the overall conservation goal.

In addition to the properties’ water quality benefits, its protection is critical in the battle against climate change. The lands’ natural features will support abundant and healthy wildlife even as the climate changes, and the project’s forests will store nearly 1.3 metric tons of carbon by 2050.

“The Crooked River Headwaters project is the culmination of years of work making the case for forest protection to funders and stakeholders, and building local capacity to increase the pace and scale of conservation,” said Karen Young, partnership director at Sebago Clean Waters. “It was an unprecedented victory for Sebago Lake watershed’s forests and its future. The work that laid the foundation for this success will pave the way for greater victories to come.”

Circling the partners

At the center of this conservation victory are a dynamic couple, Mary McFadden and Larry Stifler. Together, they have been buying forestland in the region since the 1970s with the goals of conserving it and making it accessible for public recreation. They carefully manage their land for wildlife and for people, including installing beautifully designed hiking, biking, and cross-country ski trails.

Having amassed 11,000 acres, McFadden and Stifler long had their eye on an adjacent 1,355-acre property owned by a local timber company that was not willing to sell. Then in 2019, The Conservation Fund acquired the tract, as part of a larger transaction, with the intention of reselling the land to a local land trust. In stepped SCW to negotiate a complex deal that would ultimately lead to the protection of all of McFadden and Stifler’s lands, as well as the coveted 1,355 acres.

At a meeting with SCW partners in a cabin overlooking a lake, with loons crooning and mountains in the distance, a creative plan was hatched to accomplish the massive conservation goal: the couple would buy the 1,355 acres and then immediately place an easement on the land — along with the 11,000 acres they owned. Further complicating matters was the sheer number of parcels Stifler and McFadden assembled over the years. In the end, 77 separate property deeds needed to be scrutinized.

“In my 20 years of doing real estate transactions, this was by far the most complicated project I have ever seen,” recalled Kirk Siegel of the Mahoosuc Land Trust, which holds the easement on the lands and worked closely with Western Foothills Land Trust + Inland Woods and Trails on the project.

A new model for funding

Another significant complexity the project faced had to do with the funding mechanisms. SCW, in partnership with the Portland Water District (PWD), another coalition member, secured an $8M award from the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in 2021. SCW committed the first $1.8 million toward this project, but because the program had new and evolving guidelines, it took creative thinking, persistence, and patience to iron out the details.

As the first easement project to close with RCPP funding under the 2018 Farm Bill, the Crooked River Headwaters project is likely to become a model for other groups seeking to use the program to protect forestland. With its funding likely to increase substantially in the coming years, the RCPP program could become an expanded source of finance for forestland protection.

Image Credit: Hadley Couraud for Sebago Clean Waters

Building on the federal funding, PWD issued its largest-ever grant to the project. But instead of paying cash outright for its $496,000 grant, the organization borrowed funds from Maine’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and issued bonds to repay the loan.

While most states use these funds to provide low-interest loans for water system upgrades and other “grey infrastructure,” in Maine, they can also be used to fund land protection. State revolving funds stand to receive significantly increased funding and more latitude in land protection under the recently passed Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

“Borrowing these funds was a way to institutionalize the idea that green infrastructure —forest conservation — is no different than buying a pipe,” said Paul Thomas Hunt, environmental services manager of PWD. “It’s just another component of being a water utility. Our responsibility is to invest wisely in infrastructure to ensure clean, safe water and forest conservation – green infrastructure does that.”

In addition to PWD’s contribution, other donors contributed $60,000 — all of which leveraged a significant land value donation from the landowners Stifler and McFadden.

“We had always wanted to conserve this land,” said Mary McFadden. “As we learned about how important it was for water quality, and the fact that Portland was one of so few cities not having to filter its water, we knew this was the right thing to do.”

Finally, on December 15, 2021, the property was protected, forever, for the state of Maine.

‘Never in my wildest dreams’

With its support of projects such as these 12,000 acres, PWD has become a leader among water utilities nationally in recognizing the importance of green infrastructure to ensure water quality.

For PWD’s Hunt, protecting the forest to keep the water clean seems almost like a no-brainer today. But it wasn’t always that way: he remembers the call he got 20 years ago from a land trust requesting funds for an easement on forestland, and how PWD’s own approach has evolved since then.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought we’d be where we are now, investing at this level of funding and thus leveraging a good deal of federal, state, and local money to work with such committed and sophisticated land trusts to protect the forest,” he said.

Hunt credits OSI and the rest of Sebago Clean Waters with bringing the partners together, promoting the importance of forest conservation to ensure water quality and securing funding, support, and legitimacy for the endeavor.

“At our meetings, I’m just stunned looking at all these smart, thoughtful people, and they’re all coming to the table working on a project that began with a land trust asking the Portland Water District twenty years ago for $10,000 to protect land,” he said.

Newly emboldened by this success, SCW partners are queuing up a significant pipeline of high-priority forest conservation projects. Whether they will succeed at keeping the amount of forestland above the tipping point that would trigger the need for filtration is not guaranteed. But Hunt believes that regardless, they are pursuing a “no-regret strategy” because a forested watershed is important to any water utility, no matter the form of treatment in use. “Trees treat water for us while we sleep,” he notes, “and they require no electricity or chemicals to do the job.”

“Thanks to OSI and the rest of the Sebago Clean Waters partners, we’re going to hand off these lands — our watershed — to the next generation in as good shape as we could leave it. And that will be our legacy,” he said.

Next Story From the Field

Making Rail Trail History in Northern New Jersey (2022)

With OSI's instrumental support, a historic greenway in northern New Jersey is one step closer to changing the way that millions live, recreate, commute, and experience the outdoors.