By Doug Sensenig, Executive Director, Coastal Mountains Land Trust
The community of people who created and continue the work of Coastal Mountains Land Trust love beautiful landscapes and the effect they have on people’s spirits and our local economy. Since 1986 we have protected almost 10,000 acres of the hills, forests and fields of Maine’s western Penobscot Bay. Our carefully targeted program works with willing landowners to protect land permanently, whether through conservation easements or outright purchase.
People choose to live in our area because of its outstanding natural beauty and quality of life. The small towns scattered along the bay host a remarkable concentration of artists in all disciplines. Many of them use the surrounding lands as inspiration for their work.
Coastal Mountains Land Trust promotes a conservation ethic, and aesthetic, in our dealings with everyone, whether they are artists, schoolchildren or people touring the area. We operate on a very tight budget, which forces us to plan carefully. Yet we think big.
Our first project, a 570-acre collection of old farms and a blueberry barren with outstanding views of Penobscot Bay, included a Norwegian-style sod-roofed “hutte” called “Beech Nut” atop the property. It was built by wealthy rusticators from Philadelphia to serve as a place where their family could enjoy summer picnics or rainy afternoons. The approach, structure and grounds were designed by Hans Heistad, an associate of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park.
Beech Nut was derelict when Coastal Mountains Land Trust came into ownership. Its windows were rotted and broken, the sod roof was in a sorry state, and vandals had ripped up the parquet floor and burned it. The gates and landscaping had not been maintained in more than 50 years.
Land trusts are not usually in the business of restoring buildings. When our Board began consideration of what to do with Beech Nut, we had significant commitments to other high-priority properties under threat of development. The history of vandalism raised questions of security and the ultimate burden the building would place on our organization. Many had only known Beech Nut as a ruin and were reluctant to intervene in its romantic decline. There were no concrete plans for its use. Finally, a decision was made to rehabilitate the structure using modern materials that would withstand the elements in the exposed setting.
Then the magic began. Our community was fascinated with the work. The construction team fell in love with the serene old building. Though never easy, fundraising went smoothly. Beech Nut had always been a landmark for sailors cruising the bay; now it became a beacon for hikers, birders and kite-flyers. Coastal Mountains Land Trust received several historic preservation awards. Almost ten years later, the building has suffered no vandalism.
Today, Beech Nut is our brand and a symbol of our success. We became fully conscious of what we’d suspected all along – that land protection cannot be fully successful until it has emotional investment from the community. As Alan Gussow said in A Sense of Place, “A place is a piece of the whole environment that has been claimed by feelings.” Beech Nut is just such a place.
In managing our funds, we have a fiduciary duty to maximize profit on investments. At the same time, our ethics demand that we be mindful of the consequences of our actions. Over the years our Board has wrestled with this dilemma. There has been skepticism about the real meaning of “socially responsible.” In our most recent review, our Finance Committee considered a range of options. At one end, the committee considered indexing as a kind of neutral position. At the other, the committee agreed that, if a more ethical approach were adopted, it should be active and genuine.
Upon review of performance, we were pleased to find that Socially Responsible Investing could reflect Coastal Mountains Land Trust’s values without compromise.
For more information about our work, please visit coastalmountains.org.
Editor’s Note: This column was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Investing For a Better World.