How to Save a Maine Pond

A conservation group and like-minded residents banded together to protect Shiloh Pond in Kingfield.

You get the sense you’re heading somewhere special when the road turns to dirt and, even more, after you park, then duck under the iron gate where the road becomes a footpath along a gurgling stream. A short walk through the woods takes you to Shiloh Pond, which is edged with mountain views and has water so clear that, even if you’re not a fly-fisher, you wish you were.

The public has long been able to access the Kingfield pond and its surrounding land, which are a 15-minute drive from downtown, but in 2018 the landowners put it up for sale, potentially jeopardizing its future use by the public. When resident Stacey McCluskey, who jogs, bikes, and fishes there, saw the for-sale sign, she made a post on the Kingfield Community Forum Facebook page suggesting that the town purchase the land. Her post prompted Brent West, executive director of a community conservation organization called High Peaks Alliance, to reach out to her and other town members to form a plan for the pond’s protection. With assistance in fundraising and legal work from the Trust for Public Land, private donors, and community support, High Peaks raised over $500,000, including a $70,000 conservation grant from the Netflix series MeatEater, to purchase the pond and its surrounding 215 acres and donate the parcel to Kingfield for permanent protection as the Kingfield Community Forest.

High Peaks, which has a trail-building track record that includes the creation of the 45-mile Fly Rod Crosby Trail between Rangeley and Strong, will help the town manage the land. The nonprofit is made up of a diverse group of stakeholders including hikers, hunters, and ATVers and will build trails on the property while preserving the pristine pond and its surrounding wetlands and old-growth forests. West, who learned to fly fish there as a kid, says it is rare to find an undeveloped trout pond so close to town, but what made the project so special was that it fit into the Alliance’s bigger goal of building a land conservation ethic in the region that involves community input and involvement.

High Peaks is the only community-based conservation organization for the western mountains region, which is surprising given the recreational opportunities ski mountains like Sugarloaf and Saddleback bring. With a spike in property sales to out-of-staters who may not always appreciate Maine’s unique history of land access—94 percent of forest lands are privately owned, but it is common for landowners to grant recreational access—this region needs the organization now more than ever. “More and more places that the public has had access to forever are being purchased and posted,” says McCluskey, who is a Registered Maine Guide and educator. “It seems that each year another boat launch, swimming hole, or waterfall is no longer accessible to the public.”

West, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, is quick to welcome out-of-staters. “We really need to open up to new community members,” he says. “Instead of looking at them with skepticism, we need to start talking to them.” This is the philosophy that High Peaks Alliance was built on when a hiker and a hunter put their heads together 14 years ago. Founders Loyd Griscom, an avid hiker, and Roger Lambert, a Master Maine Guide, believed that, if they could put aside the differences of these two camps, they would have a lot in common, says West.

Along with the Shiloh Pond project, High Peaks Alliance is working on bringing more easily accessible trails to downtown Farmington in a partnership with the University of Maine at Farmington, and recently created the High Peaks Initiative with 11 other organizations to coordinate community-based conservation efforts throughout the region.

“It seems universally that a lot of our communities don’t think that the projects they have rolling around in their heads are possible,” says West. The Maine native says he thinks this sentiment arises from the region’s history; residents have seen local economies tanking after lumber mills close, like in his own hometown of New Portland. “They don’t think they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but we don’t have to do it alone.”

This optimistic approach may both protect the region and help it prosper. A recent economic development strategy report from the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments pointed to the four-season recreational opportunities as one of the region’s competitive advantages. West sees High Peaks Alliance filling a role played by land trusts in other parts of the state, but is also in favor of more projects like Shiloh, that give land ownership directly to the community.

“To appreciate how priceless Shiloh Pond is, all one has to do is close their eyes and imagine the future: Kingfield will continue to be developed. We don’t know how many more mountains, how much farmland, how many grassy back roads in river valleys will be subdivided into housing lots,” says McCluskey. “We’ve seen quite a lot of this already in our little town. Shiloh will be an oasis.”

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