$35,000 for Hacker’s Hill drive

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

CASCO — End-of-the-year donations brought a boost to the treasure chest for the Hacker’s Hill purchase.

Loon Echo Land Trust (LELT) Executive Director Carrie Walia said she almost cried tears of joy when $35,000 worth of checks arrived in the mail during the last weeks of December.

“I had tears in my eyes opening the mail. I was so touched,” she said.

Since then, more money has trickled in. With the onset of 2012, monetary gifts have come mostly from the region’s residents who believe in keeping Hacker’s Hill as a place for all people to visit, she said.

“It’s a slow time after the holiday gift giving, and there are not any events planned on the hill at this time,” she said during a phone interview on Monday.

However, Walia predicts that donations will increase as spring approaches. At that time, LELT-sponsored events on Hacker’s Hill, as well as steering committee activities, should propel the fundraising effort.

Also, a hawk migration watch planned for April should bring bird-viewing enthusiasts to the site, and potentially turn more eyes toward the land acquisition goal, she said. Additionally, Earth Day activities are scheduled to take place, and a meteor-shower viewing get-together is in the making.

This upcoming Tuesday (Feb. 21), Walia will update the Casco Board of Selectmen about the contribution totals and future plans involved in LELT’s campaign to garner $800,000 to purchase and maintain the land.

LELT is seeking to purchase the 27-acre mini-mountain with the objective of keeping it open to the public. The residents of Casco have supported the push for continued public access. During a June 2011 town meeting, voters agreed to pitch in $75,000 for the land acquisition costs.

According to Casco Town Manager Dave Morton, the $75,000 residents put toward the Hacker’s Hill procurement exists in a fund that had been building over the years — a land preservation fund in the town’s budget.

So, while February’s donations have grown a little cold and spring could promise a warming trend in fundraising and grant approvals, the hotbed issue ‘in the public eye’ tends to be the religious piece.

This is a topic Walia hopes might have some resolution — if she gets the latest word from the State Attorney General’s office, Land For Maine’s Future (LFMF), or the Maine Department of Conservation. Walia sought an audience with representatives from those three entities this month.

“We talked things through, and talked about the community’s concerns,” she said.

“They will issue a clarification soon,” Walia said. “I just want to end the controversy over it. It has been going on for too long.”

Almost one-third of the funding is earmarked for the land acquisition by LFMF. When that money was promised to the campaign, the mandate that followed was that all religious structures must be removed. Separation of church and state law is being broken if there is favoritism of any one religion or religious displays on public land, according to correspondence to LELT.

For two decades, High Country Mission members have been holding outdoor services on the Hacker’s Hill property. Under a pergola, stands a statue where people have placed tokens to remember those who have died. Also, a lightning strike to a tree resulted in its trunk and a massive branch creating a cross. That resemblance to Christ’s cross has been preserved on the parcel as well.

Donnie Fowler serves as the church’s missionary. He has also worked as the caretaker of the land that is currently owned by the Hall family.

“The mission of that church — the first mission — was to provide that place to everyone so everyone could go up there and enjoy themselves; take a walk, have a picnic, or watch the sunset,” he said.

“The Number One goal of High Country Mission is to preserve Hacker’s Hill as a place everyone can go to,” he said.

The objects (the statue of Jesus and pine tree cross) are not religious, but spiritual, Fowler said. They are visuals to assist people with their personal relationship with God, he said. Young adults frequently die in car wrecks along Route 11, and their friends and family members trek up Hacker’s Hill to honor those who have died and come to terms with their sorrow at the foot of the Jesus statue, he said.

“What the state would do is rob people of that freedom of touching base with God on Hacker’s Hill,” Fowler said.

Casco resident Jeannine Oren agreed the state should compromise — leaving alone the icons that are tied to the people who visit the site.

“The base of the Jesus and Child statue on top of Hacker’s Hill is literally carpeted with hundreds upon hundreds of personalized tributes to loved ones, lost loved ones — including pets, fallen local soldiers, and so on, that have been placed here over the years. It is incredibly moving and often brings tears to the eyes of the prayerful, the curious, and the just plain tourists,” Oren said.

“It would be a tragedy if this holy place were disturbed. There was clearly an expectation on the part of those making the offerings that they were placed at the foot of Christ in perpetuity,” she said.

Fowler explained that Hacker’s Hill has a history of bringing humans closer to God.

“You know why it is spiritual? It goes way back to the early 1900s when the United States was on fire with revival. The United States was ablaze with revival. It was about getting close to God,” Fowler said.

“That extended to Maine. The Quakers who settled on Quaker Ridge brought that spirit with them,” he said

“I can see some compromise, but I can’t see them taking a statue of Jesus Christ off Hacker’s Hill or (removing) the cross. I will fight it to the end. I will stand for Jesus Christ,” Fowler said.

The state’s initial decision was issued in the summer of 2011. Since that time, the LELT and Casco residents have been waiting for word from the state — a clarification, a compromise, or a different decision — regarding the removal of religious items.

Walia hopes to have updated news from the state when she speaks to Casco selectmen on Tuesday, she said.

“I want to get that behind us. We are here because we care about public access to the land, and how to manage it,” she said.

LELT is encouraged by the outpouring of donations so far, and has a hopeful gaze toward grant money.

“We had a goal of reaching the $500,000 by end of 2011. And, we did. We continue to receive donations from community members,” Walia said.

“It is a tricky time for fundraising right now. We are still $280,000 away” from our goal, Walia said.

“I think come late March, there will be some sense of urgency,” she said, referring to the mid-May deadline for LELT to make an offer to the private landowners.

“We are busy writing grants, but we haven’t received approval. You never know. The grants are highly competitive,” Walia said. “Fortunately, we are hopeful.”

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