"A walk in the woods is much more than a walk in the woods," reads the sign at the Belfast terminus of the 47-mile cross-country Hills to Sea Trail. "It's about connection, it's a sanctuary, it's a home." Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Ryan King of Stockton Springs is an avid hiker who loves the Hills to Sea Trail, a 47-mile footpath that crosses thickly wooded hills, farm fields, country roads and more as it traverses Waldo County from Unity to Belfast.

Last year, though, a scenic stretch of trail that runs through privately owned land in Montville was closed until further notice, making it impossible for him to thru-hike the trail as he did three times in the past.

“You have to work around it now,” he said of the closed-off section. “And it’s not as fulfilling. I’m happy with every mile and every blaze. But there’s something that’s a nice little accomplishment about checking off another through hike on Hills to Sea.”

That is something that points to a larger reality: access to woods, ponds, the ocean and other beloved natural areas is something that most Mainers treasure. But that access is not always guaranteed, especially if it stems from a handshake agreement.

The landowners didn’t share their reason for restricting access, Buck O’Herin, the coordinator for the Hills to Sea Trail Coalition, said. But the issues may have stemmed from the popularity of that area with all kinds of people, including those riding motorized vehicles such as snowmobiles and ATVs, which are prohibited on the trail itself.

Buck O’Herin, the coordinator for the Hills to Sea Coalition, stands at the eastern terminus in Belfast of the 47-mile Hills to Sea Trail. The trail crosses the land of more than 60 private landowners. “The existence of the trail is entirely due to the goodwill of landowners,” he said. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

“Landowners rightly feel that they are trusting the community to take care of something that belongs to them,” he said. “So violations can feel very personal.”

Even talking about the situation feels delicate to O’Herin. That’s because the trail crosses property that belongs to more than 60 private landowners and only exists because of their willingness to allow hikers access to their land.

Still, O’Herin is hoping that the Montville landowners will open their land back up to hikers in the future, and that all users will double down on efforts to be respectful.

In 2011, he and other volunteers began the long process of piecing together a cross-country trail. They were able to place parts of it on land that has been permanently conserved, but had to reach out to private landowners for the rest. Some people didn’t even want to consider it. But others agreed, entering into a handshake agreement with the coalition that allowed them to build the trail on their land.

By 2016, the Hills to Sea Trail was completed. But because so much of it crosses private property, its future relies on landowners continuing to allow access.

Access to people’s land is a privilege, and not a right, O’Herin said.

The Hills to Sea Trail is a 47-mile footpath that traverses Waldo County from Unity to Belfast. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

“It’s a really tenuous project. The glue of the project really is trust — the trust of the landowners and the trust of the hikers. Hikers don’t always realize that,” he said. “The existence of the trail is entirely due to the goodwill of landowners.”

Landowners can change their mind, putting up “no trespassing signs” and gates where there used to be no impediments. As well, when land changes hands, as it has been doing at a fast clip during the pandemic, that handshake agreement doesn’t always follow.

This is true beyond the Hills to Sea Trail as well. The public’s ability to get to a favorite fishing hole, swimming area or beautiful overlook, can be gone forever when a changed mind or new landowner no longer wants to share.

“It’s wonderful that there are some casual places you can go, and there are no signs and no rules,” Ian Stewart, executive director of the Coastal Mountains Land Trust in Camden, said. “But the danger is that unless there’s a proactive plan to secure that, they can go away.”

Every individual change is a loss to those who love a particular area. But if enough losses happen, it could change the quality of life in the state — and not for the better.

That is a specter that haunts Tim Glidden, the president of the Topsham-based nonprofit land conservation organization Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

“One of the lovely things about Maine is that for generations, we’ve relied on that kind of handshake deal. If you didn’t make trouble, or leave a lot of trash behind, people let you walk across their land, or through their woods, or even swim in their ponds,” he said. “But when relationships are lost, for folks who can’t afford to buy their own access, they’re effectively shut out.”

Land trusts, which conserve privately owned land, play a critical role in making sure public access to private land is not lost, he said. That’s the case around the country, but even more so in Maine, where only 6.5 percent of land is owned by federal, state or local governments. It’s the smallest percentage in New England, where New Hampshire is ranked first with 20.2 percent of its land publicly owned. Nationally, the Pine Tree state ranks 37th.

In Maine, land trusts have stepped in to fill the gap. More than 80 of them have permanently conserved more than 2.5 million acres, or 12 percent of the state.

The Maine Coast Heritage Trust acquired this stretch of land along Bailey’s Mistake in Lubec in 2018. The beach, now a public preserve, is an important access point for both fishermen and recreational boaters. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Coast Heritage Trust

It’s a lot of land. But in the last year, it was clear to Glidden that it may not be enough. As inside venues and activities suddenly closed because of the pandemic, people flocked to nature in such overwhelming numbers that the state shut down several of the more popular parks. Lots discovered their local land trusts, too, with some estimating they had at least double the visitors of previous years.

“It’s something we wrestled with last year — how to make sure our most popular places aren’t overwhelmed by people who love the places. It’s possible for them to get overwhelmed, that’s for sure,” he said. “The solution from our point of view is we need to acquire more of these places. It’s clear that folks have been reminded how much they value the outdoor experience in Maine.”

In the last few years, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust has succeeded in putting important coastal access and recreation sites such as Bailey’s Mistake in Lubec and Clark Island in St. George in conservation. The organization is working hard to keep identifying and conserving parcels of land that might otherwise be lost to development.

The Maine Coast Heritage Trust acquired Clark Island in St. George in 2020. The previous owners of the island had long allowed the public to use the beaches and walk the trails. The land trust has made that access permanent. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Coast Heritage Trust

Glidden and other land conservationists often feel like they are in a race against time to ensure access. Another factor that is increasing the pressure is the real estate boom, which led to more land transactions than usual along the coast, even in more rural and remote locations. Climate change is likely to bring even more people here, he said.

“The pandemic kind of threw into very sharp relief that Maine can be a very appealing place to be,” Glidden said. “Those folks will be looking for places to live, and if they’re not constrained by internet connections, you are going to see more sprawling development. That’s the stuff that erodes the quality of the coast. The work that land conservation does is to keep that fabric whole and keep the tapestry up, that we can all get to the coast, even if we can’t afford to live on the coast.”

In some cases, even permanently conserving land doesn’t ease all the tensions that may exist between the public and private landowners. At the Fernald’s Neck Preserve in Lincolnville, a 326 acre preserve on Megunticook Lake that is owned by the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, neighbors have complained from time to time about speeding traffic and unauthorized parking.

To try and curb such problems, in the busiest months there is often a representative from the land trust stationed in the preserve’s tiny parking area.

“Increasing demand on land is bringing to a head the issue of how to make access permanent,” Stewart said. “It needs to be two-sided. You need to do things well enough for the people who want to use it. But you’re in trouble if you don’t think about the parking lot overflowing and bugging the neighbors.”

For hikers such as King, tensions between private landowners and the public may be nothing new, but the ripple effect can still feel painful and fresh. He just hopes that whatever went wrong that caused part of the Hills to Sea Trail to be closed can be fixed.

“You literally walk across the county, and that’s pretty cool. There are different aspects of the trail that are all interesting and beautiful. They do a really good job. So the closure kind of breaks my heart,” King said.