A cabin on Jordan's Delight, an island off Milbridge that is part of Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, burns after being intentionally set ablaze Thursday, April 25, 2019, by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff. The destruction of the cabin caps 25 years of effort by conservation officials to return the now-protected island to a natural state in order to preserve it as a nesting colony for sea birds. Credit: Bill Trotter

In 1994, when the then-owner of an island called Jordan’s Delight started building a house on it, officials with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Maine Coast Heritage Trust thought the island would never again be fully wild and that the seabird populations that had nested on its grassy cliffs for millennia might be displaced forever.

But on Thursday, 18 years after the house was deconstructed and hauled away, USFWS officials set fire to a separate cabin on the island as part of a controlled burn, removing the last vestige of human habitation from the 30-acre isle, which is located a few miles out to sea from the Washington County town of Milbridge. As black smoke rose into the sky, birds circled overhead and watched from nearby rocks as if waiting for the last people to leave.

People can continue to make seasonal daytime visits to Jordan’s Delight, which in 2007 became part of Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, but now that the wildlife service owns the entire island, access is not allowed during spring and summer, when birds nest on the island.

Credit: Bill Trotter

And as of Thursday, with the destruction of the cabin, conservation officials have fully restored Jordan’s Delight to a natural state, a quarter of a century after they thought its days as a seabird nursery were nearly over.

“This is one of the highlights of my career, in terms of seeing [the wilderness restoration of] an island that was so critical for seabird nesting habitat and one that we thought we had lost,” Brian Benedict, manager of the federal wildlife refuge, said Thursday after the burn. “The habitat is finally back for the birds, as of today.”

Seabirds that nest on Jordan’s Delight include black-backed and herring gulls, black guillemots, common eiders, double-crested cormorants, and Leach’s storm petrels. During the winter, purple sandpipers and harlequin ducks are known to forage for food on the island’s intertidal ledges, according to the National Audubon Society.

Credit: Bill Trotter

Though predators such as bald eagles and mink can be found on the island — the wildlife service sets traps for mink — its remote location and exposed topography keep it inhospitable to other predators such as foxes and bobcats.

Benedict said the presence of the buildings on the island, and their use by the owners, threatened to disrupt the island’s role in the ecosystem as a seabird colony. Jordan’s Delight once was thought to host the largest nesting colony of black guillemots on the entire East Coast, and is considered to be among Maine’s top nesting spots for storm petrels and eiders.

“This island is really majestic in that it has a number of different resident species,” Benedict said. “Even if they’ve been nesting there for years, if there is enough disturbance in the area, they will typically seek a more protected area, away from human presence.”

Credit: Bill Trotter

Jordan’s Delight, which has relatively few trees and along much of its shoreline has high cliffs that tower over the surrounding waves, already was on conservationists’ radar before anyone built on it. This was in large part due to Mary C. Rea, a founding board member of Maine Coast Heritage Trust who owned and summered on Trafton Island, about 2 miles away from Jordan’s Delight.

Rea died in 2015 at the age of 98, but when the trust acquired most of the island and removed the larger house in 2001, she said Jordan’s Delight was well known as a bird colony and that she was shocked when she learned the prior owner had started constructing a 3,000-square-foot house — which stuck out “like a sore thumb,” she told the Bangor Daily News.

“There was no reason to inhabit this island, except to have a view,” she told Maine Public Radio in 2001. “And it just seemed like such a sacrilege to build a house on this beautiful place and, with the view around us and the wildlife, and that it just seemed absolutely out of character for the whole island to have anything man-made on it.”

Credit: Bill Trotter

In the early 1990s, when the island still had no structures on it, it went on the market but Maine Coast Heritage Trust was unable to purchase it. Instead, a New Jersey resident bought it, built the cabin and then started to build but never completed construction of the larger house.

“Like many people from away, he thought it was going to be ideal to come to Maine and build a house on an island where it’s going to be warm and sunny,” Benedict said. “He [mostly] built the house and realized sometimes it’s foggy and cold and damp, more often than not. I don’t think it was quite his dream of what he had initially intended.”

In 2000, the island again was offered for sale, for $1.6 million, and was purchased by a venture capitalist from Boston, who donated 27 acres of it to the trust but retained ownership of 3 acres, including the promontory where the cabin was located, so he and his family could stay there outside bird nesting season.

According to records on file at the Washington County Registry of Deeds, at the end of 2017 he conveyed ownership of the cabin parcel to the trust, which last summer deeded it to the federal government, making the wildlife refuge’s ownership of Jordan’s Delight complete.

Ciona Ulbrich, senior project manager for Maine Heritage Coast Trust, said Thursday that though Jordan’s Delight ended up being rescued from development, the fact that its rare role in eastern Maine’s coastal environment was nearly squandered 25 years ago serves as a cautionary tale.

“We all knew this island was really important. Many of us tried to conserve it over time and we weren’t able to. A private buyer bought it,” Ulbrich said. “What happened to it is what you never imagine might happen to a pristine, special place that really is there for the birds. And it happened. This is a lesson to all of us. Today is when we were able to undo that.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....