Rewilding Maine’s Southern Beaches

Before last weekend, the last time I had spent any time on Maine’s Southern beaches was a field trip for a geology class in my first year of college (don’t ask the year).  Professor Hussey used the trip to immerse us in the patterns of coastal geology.  In early April we spent a couple of days exploring from Ogunquit to Pine Point, looking for spring avian migrants (a Glossy Ibis at Scarborough Marsh was a treat to see), and enjoying Southern Maine foodie culture.  After more than a couple of decades, I sensed the changes in this section of Maine.

The lasting memory of the trip was sadness at the way we have developed the beach-front property.  Despite many acres of wetland and estuary landscapes preserved as part of the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, many of the barrier beaches are filled with houses, lined up cheek to jowl, so that the beaches are almost invisible from the roadways.  The few public access points at many of the beaches have no parking, and signs warn non-residents that “loading and unloading” are prohibited.  Also remarkable were the busy construction crews building new homes and renovating others, including some that appear to have been damaged by Maine’s March Nor’easters.

The landscape represents a failure in public policy – State and local government encouraging inappropriate development and using public dollars to subsidize continued use of dwellings in places increasingly vulnerable to storms and sea level rise generated by global change.  Maine’s mandatory shorelands zoning law has fallen short of its promise. The public costs of allowing continued development on these beaches are measured in dollar terms through subsidized flood insurance programs and infrastructure maintenance.  The more important costs to my mind are in the reduced function of the natural coastal system due to the housing development of these beaches.  The patchwork national wildlife refuge lands scattered behind the beach front development are woefully insufficient to restore these coastal ecosystems to their full function.

It is time to begin a long and expensive process of rewilding Maine’s southern beaches.

Maine has an admirable history of public land acquisition over the past serveral decades, but little of this has happened in places like those I visited in York and Cumberland Counties.  The Land for Maine’s Future program has been criticized for spending a disproportionate share of its funds in Northern and Eastern Maine for conservation lands in multiple use management.  While I do not fully buy the argument, the criticism is that the program works primarily for people from Southern Maine.  In this telling of the story,  public dollars build outdoor playgrounds through conservation and at the same time reduce the economic opportunities for residents in the North and East.  Certainly given the land price differences across the state, more conservation lands could be created per dollar spent outside of York and Cumberland Counties.   Now would be a time to focus this and other programs on restoring Maine’s beaches to their natural functions with the estuaries and wetlands behind them.  To do this would require a two part program, both regulatory and economic.

First, given the prospect of higher sea levels and more intense storms, there are many coastal lands were we should restrict the right to rebuild after storms and the right to fortify structures and landscapes against future storms.  This would be an appropriate exercise of the police powers (the obligation for government to protect the public health, safety, and general welfare) that undergird all of our land use regulation in Maine.  Furthermore, as structures are damaged by storms or properties are put up for sale by current owners, we should use public funds like Land for Maine’s Future to purchase those properties and restore the lots one by one to their natural habitats.  I think of this as rewilding one tiny lot at a time.

Would it be expensive?  Certainly.  Would it take decades or longer to fully accomplish any meaningful rewilding?  Of course.  Would current owners feel aggrieved?  Absolutely.  Would it be worth it?  Generations to come would thank us for our foresight and courage.

Conservation is easy when it involves donating to organizations to get a sticker on your car window and have forest lands set aside from development where few people go and land values are low.  Conservation is hard when it involves removing development that generates high property tax payments and summer visitors who pay for ice cream cones and amusement park rides.  This kind of conservation would be an expression of our commitment to begin restoring to nature what we have taken.  It would be an acknowledgement that the natural world exists for something more that the gratification of human wants.

This idea of rewilding Maine’s beaches is at odds with current thinking in mainstream conservation organizations as much as it is at odds with real estate devolopers.  For example, Peter Kareiva, the Senior Science Advisor to The Nature Conservancy, has argued that nature has now been “domesticated” and our only choice is the find ways to manage the natural world to meet human needs.  The focus is on “ecosystem service valuation,” finding out how much nature is worth to humans through natural mechanisms to clean human effluents from the water or air.  Rewilding Maine’s beaches would be a statement that nature is still valuable for its own sake and is not something solely for human management.  Accepting a domesticated nature is like saying that dogs are now domesticated to serve human needs so wild canines like fox, coyote, or wolves are no longer need live wild lives.

Some day, perhaps a college geology class will visit these beaches as an example of how nature works when humans simply get out of the way.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.