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

When Maine Coast Heritage trust closed on the $3.8 million purchase of 120 acres on Clark Island last summer, it was the culmination of one of the organization’s loftiest fundraising efforts to preserve public access to a unique piece of Maine’s coast.

But in the year since taking ownership the organization has run into another hurdle ― the new preserve is just too popular for the eight parking spots currently available for preserve users.

“We need a better parking solution. It’s very popular and for good reason because it’s a wonderful place, but we are desperately looking for an additional small area of land to create better and safe off road parking,” said Amanda Devine, a regional steward manager for Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

Clark Island is connected to the St. George peninsula by a causeway, but the public can only cross the causeway on foot — meaning they need to leave their vehicles on the mainland. Only eight parking spots at the nearby Craignair Inn are available to users of the preserve.

When those spots are full, people have been parking along the narrow street that leads to the causeway, despite “no parking” signs, Devine said. The increase in street parking and traffic is causing frustration among neighbors.

At the end of May, Devine met with a group of neighbors to discuss the parking problem. St. George Town Manager Tim Polky, who was in attendance, said the town is generally happy that the trust was able to preserve public access to the island but the growing popularity has folks concerned about exacerbating parking problems.

“What has people concerned is that if the number of visitors multiplies, then the parking issue is going to multiply as well,” Polky said.

Even before Maine Coast Heritage Trust took ownership, parking problems existed in relation to Clark Island, Polky said. For decades, the family that owned the island ― and still retains about 50 acres for their private use ― has allowed people to cross the causeway to enjoy the island’s beaches and quarry for swimming, or trails for exploring.

It was largely used by people who lived locally, so the traffic and parking issues generated by use of the island weren’t at the levels Maine Coast Heritage Trust is seeing now.

The increase in use is due in part to Clark Island now being a part of Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s statewide network of land preserves, as well as the pandemic pushing more people outside. Devine said that on nice weather weekends this spring, “we’re easily exceeding 100 people a day” visiting Clark Island.

Maine Coast Heritage Trust is currently in the early stages of trying to find a small plot of land on the mainland to purchase and establish a standalone parking lot for preserve users, Devine said.

But tackling the parking dilemma is just one of the tasks Devine has been working on since the land trust took ownership last summer.

Most of the $4.4 million raised by the land trust was to purchase the land. But a stewardship fund for the preserve was also created to ensure the land would be cared for into the future. The organization is still working to raise $50,000 to complete the stewardship fund.

Since Clark Island already had some level of public use ― including an existing trail system created by the previous owners ― Devine said it’s been relatively easy to transition the land into a formal preserve.

“[Clark Island] has the qualities of what I think of as a state park, it’s that spectacular. But it’s in a very quiet, densely settled village-type neighborhood. So that’s what has been difficult,” Devine said. “But in terms of making it [into a preserve], if Clark didn’t have the geographic setting issues that it has with the parking issues, it was a shovel ready preserve.”

Over the last year, Devine has focused on trail maintenance projects, including clearing out overgrowth from a path that leads to the island’s swimming quarry and rehabilitating the trails on the west side of the island. While some additional trails may be added on the preserve, Devine said she’s now making improvements to the existing 1.2-mile loop.

During its quarrying days, Clark Island’s natural habitat was “stripped bare and laid to waste,” Devine said, to the point where the invasive plants that have grown in are threatening the island’s native habitat. The biggest task for Devine on Clark Island ― aside from solving the parking issue ― will be eradicating these invasive plant species to ensure that the remaining native plants can survive.

“I’m starting invasive plant management now hoping that 100 years down the line there are still native plants there,” Devine said. “These are some of the positive enjoyable aspects of our stewardship. It’s not just a parking disaster.”

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