A sign located at the parking lot of the Vena M. Memorial Ball Field tell visitors that the trailhead to the Haystack Mountain Trail is located behind the ball field backstop on Oct. 2, 2014, in Liberty. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

LIBERTY, Maine —  Danielle Blake of Liberty loves Haystack Mountain, an 800-foot-tall hill whose forested slopes rise to a summit of blueberry barrens that gives wide-open views of the surrounding forests, farmland and distant hills.

But when she learned that the company that owns the mountaintop blueberry land wanted to sell it, she feared the worst — that it may be developed and no longer publicly accessible. To keep that from happening, she and others in the community have formed a small grassroots organization, the Friends of Haystack Mountain

The group has embarked on a mission to raise the $475,000 asking price for the 57-acre parcel so that they can put it in conservation and protect it for future generations. 

“It’s been a special place right from the start,” Blake said. “Our concern is that it would be bought by someone who will want for themselves that beautiful view, and that our hiking trail would no longer have the top of the mountain as a destination point.”

So far, they have raised enough to sign a purchase and sale agreement with the company that owns the land. But the full price likely will be a tough climb — much tougher than the 1.1 mile footpath that winds through a mixed hardwood forest to the summit.  

A rock pile at the edge of a blueberry field marks the outlook near the top of Haystack Mountain in Liberty on Oct. 2, 2014. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

Still, it’s worth it, the group said. 

What’s happening on Haystack points to a growing concern statewide for conservationists and those who love special spots like the mountain. As land in Maine becomes more valuable to developers, the continuation of public access to privately-owned scenic and recreational destinations is not guaranteed. 

That’s a problem, according to Buck O’Herin of the Midcoast Conservancy. He hopes that other citizen groups, such as the one formed to purchase Haystack Mountain, will become part of the solution.

“Maine is at risk of losing its unprotected special places in the next five to 10 years unless the people who know and love these places act quickly and with generosity,” he said. “What’s kind of interesting about Haystack Mountain is that it’s activating lots of folks who previously were not that engaged with conservation. I think we’ll be seeing more of this happen, as important and highly valued properties go up for sale.”

The land is owned by Allen’s Blueberry Freezer of Ellsworth, which last year sold its business and 2,800 acres of wild blueberry lands Down East to Jasper Wyman & Son of Milbridge. But Allen’s retained a number of parcels of blueberry land in the midcoast region, O’Herin said, and have put at least some of those up for sale.

A phone call this week to the number listed for Allen’s Blueberry Freezer was not answered.  

According to deed transactions and media reports, Allen’s already has sold parcels of blueberry land to the Nature Conservancy in Appleton and to the town of Warren after a nearly unanimous vote last September at a special town meeting.

O’Herin, who also belongs to the Haystack Mountain friends group, said that the hilltop parcel is likely priced at $8,300 per acre, because of its views and development value. In contrast, the town of Warren paid $2,261 per acre for its parcel.

“It’s really quite beautiful at the top. I think you can see all the way to the ocean on a good day,” O’Herin said. “They’re asking a very high price for it, which means they realize it has developable value. The end result of something like that is that a developer will buy it and put several large homes on it.”

Blake is heartened by the fact that Allen’s initially reached out to the Midcoast Conservancy to see if that non-profit would be interested in purchasing the land. It wasn’t, because the mountain is outside the group’s target conservation area. But the conservancy is serving as the fiscal partner for the friends group.

“Midcoast reached out to community members they knew had an interest in it,” Blake said. “Right from the get go, we all agreed that our mission was to protect and conserve the property for public access.”

They raised $25,000 just among themselves. For the rest, due by Dec. 20, they need to broaden their scope. They will be fundraising and applying for grants, and likely will need to take out loans to make up the difference. Once it’s acquired, the friends group plans to donate the parcel to a land trust and keep it in blueberry production.

“What we think the most important thing we can do for anybody who is interested in the project is to take them up the mountain,” O’Herin said. “I think if people see it, they’ll understand why this is such a valuable place for all the communities around there.”

For those interested in learning more about the Friends of Haystack Mountain, visit the website haystackmountainmaine.org.