Easement preserves logging legacy in Harrison

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

This photo shows part of the mile and a half of shoreline along the Crooked River that will be protected under a conservation easement donated by John and Mary Watkins to the Western Foothills Land Trust.

HARRISON — When John and Mary Watkins bought the old Weston farm and its 300 acres 39 years ago, they vowed never to sell any land for house lots. Their only interest was in growing timber — that, and in clearing enough space for an observatory, so Mary could watch the stars.

The former Dupont executive and his astronomer wife, residents of Pennsylvania in winter, are now both in their 80s. Over the years they’ve added around another 350 acres to their holdings bordered by Weston Farm Road, Scribner’s Mill Road and the Crooked River — making it the largest contiguous single-owner parcel in town.

Now all 650 acres of that land — including 1.2 miles of Crooked River frontage just north of Scribner’s Mill — will be forever protected from house lot development, as the result of a conservation easement the Watkins granted Nov. 21 to the Western Foothills Land Trust.

It’s the largest easement ever secured by the Norway-based trust, established in 1987.

“We’ve been working on this for over two years,” said John Watkins, who initially was discouraged by the state and federal restrictions they foresaw with larger conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy.  “We were very eager to have the holder of the easement be a local organization. We did not want the federal or state government to have a piece of it” by purchasing development rights, he said.

The Watkins spend five months each summer flying into Maple Ridge Airport to stay at the Weston farm, where they’ve built a caretaker house nearby so the farmhouse, at the end of Weston Farm Road off Haskell Hill Road, can be overseen. John, who also owns timberland in other states, has built a solar house near the farm, used for curing lumber cut from his forest.

2) This map outlines the 653 acres owned by John and Mary Watkins that went under a conservation easement with the Western Foothills Land Trust. At top is the historic 1825 Weston Farm on Weston Farm Road, off Haskell Hill Road. At bottom is Scribner’s Mill Road, at left, Maple Ridge Road, and at right, Jesse Mill Road.

The Watkins are members of the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine, and believe strongly in the principles of sustainable forestry management. They sell both firewood and hardwood for lumber, and cycle harvesting in two woodlot operations (one is called Appleberry Mountain Timberland) every five or 10 years to keep their forest stands healthy.

“The point is not to cut down the forest, the point is to keep it there,” said Mary Watkins.

When they bought the property, they were continuing a timber-farming legacy begun when the Weston farm was built in 1825 by James Weston. For the next 145 years, the Weston family logged the land, initially using oxen to haul the trees to local mills, including Scribner Mills, and later to larger mills including the one in Berlin, N.H. The husband of Ann Weston Twitchell, a third generation Weston, was in charge of acquiring wood for the Berlin mill for the Brown Company, according to the 2005 History of Harrison.

Part of the Watkins’ land holdings, in fact, were once owned by Jesse Scribner, owner of Scribner’s Mill. The Watkins are members of Scribner’s Mill Preservation, Inc., which owns the abutting four acres at Scribner’s Mill Bridge. It is unclear what impact the easement will have on the nonprofit’s revised state application to create an impoundment at the mill in order to operate machinery using water power. The proposed impoundment borders the Watkins’ property.

The 30-page easement document was drawn up, in part, with $6,750 funds granted by the Portland Water District, which has repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining at least an 80% forest cover within the watershed of Sebago Lake, the source of its water supply. The Casco Bay Estuary Program’s Habitat Protection Committee also contributed $2,500.

The Crooked River drains into Sebago Lake and supports an important Atlantic landlocked salmon fishery, and the PWD as well as the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has stressed the need to limit development along its banks. The Watkins’ land, which is flat to steeply-sloping, also contains 9,906 feet of a significant river tributary, Russell Brook. Around 35 acres of wetlands within the Watkins’ holdings, just off Scribner’s Mill Road, are owned by members of the estate of Mary Thomas Carlson, and therefore are excluded from the conservation agreement.

Harrison Historical Society member, Gerry Smith, said part of the Watkins’ holdings abut around 115 acres of woodlands surrounding the Carlson farmhouse on Haskell Hill Road, once a major apple-producing operation.  Carlson, who was also very involved in managing her woodlots, bequeathed the land to the society upon her death in 2003.

The historical society land is also under a conservation agreement, this one entered into with the town, Smith said. Like the Watkins’ easement, it allows logging but does not allow any development. “They wanted it to remain forever as it is,” Smith said. The Carlsons also bequeathed another 75 acres across the street from the farmhouse where the society’s museum is located.

The Watkins easement gives the couple the right to allow or deny access, as they see fit, to snowmobiles and ATVs, and John Watkins said they plan to allow snowmobilers to continue to use the existing trail. However, public access to the land is generally not allowed under the easement.

John Watkins said he reserved the right to have one of their sons or daughter build a home on two acres within the land holdings in the future, should they want to. “They are very interested in continuing this” as a family woodlot operation, he said.

Other than that, and possible construction of a biomass-powered sawmill, no other buildings or structures will be allowed on the land. “Logging doesn’t need any buildings of any consequence,” said Watkins. “It will continue as it always has.” A gravel road that runs from Scribner’s Mill Road to Walkers Mill Road provides access to the property for logging, and the land also contains other woods roads, stonewalls, skid trails and unpaved trails.

Watkins said Lee Dassler, executive director of the Western Foothills Land Trust, was enjoyable to work with in preparing the easement. “It’s a very practical, useful, workable document,” one that serves the goals of land conservation while at the same time “not tying our hands too much,” he said. If the land trust should dissolve, the easement requires that it be transferred to another local land trust.

“Who would be more interested (in overseeing the land) than a local organization?” said Watkins.

The easement notes that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has identified the 120-acre Crooked River watershed as being one of 20 drinking water watersheds in the Northeast most vulnerable to development. The land also contains habitat for the bald eagle, osprey, blue heron and other high-value species, along with many songbirds such as the prairie warbler and wood thrush.

The easement gives the Watkins not-insignificant income tax savings that help to balance the income that could be realized from selling the land. The potential federal income-tax deduction can be up to 50% of their adjusted gross income for 2011, and state income tax credits are also available under the Maine Conservation Easement Act.

The easement has little impact in terms of local property taxes, said Watkins, since the land has always been held in tree growth and taxed at that lower rate. The Watkins have a 2009 Tree Growth Management Plan prepared by Integrated Forest Management.

John Watkins said the couple may have had to sell the land without the easement.

“Now, fortunately, we don’t have to.”

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