A rock pile can be found on the summit of Haystack Mountain, which has been a hiking location for many years. The Montville property is in the process of being conserved. Credit: Courtesy of Cathy Roberts

Rising just more than 800 feet above sea level and straddling the town line between Liberty and Montville, Haystack Mountain is cherished by local residents as a place to hike, enjoy the wilderness and take in wide-open views of the region.

This year, that love was put to the test.

A 57-acre chunk of the mountain, including blueberry fields and the summit, was put up for sale. Word quickly spread, and in response, eight local residents banded together to save the property from being developed.

“There was another blueberry barren in Liberty that had been bought [recently] and divided for house lots,” said Cathy Roberts, one of the eight. “For Haystack, that whole picture was just unfathomable. We couldn’t imagine that happening. For the whole community, it was like, ‘oh my God, what can we do?’”

Local land trusts decided not to take on the project.

“They were kind of up to their eyeballs in projects already,” said Buck O’Herin, another one of the eight. “So it fell to a local group of citizens to take it on if it was going to happen.”

Thus, Friends of Haystack Mountain was born, and the original eight members became the steering committee. So far, the group has raised $150,000 of the $450,000 needed to purchase the property. Once they’ve paid off the mortgage, the group plans to transfer it to the Midcoast Conservancy to be conserved for wildlife habitat and public recreation.

“From what we’ve heard, it’s unusual for a group of neighbors to come together this way, grassroots, to save a property,” Roberts said. “We’re quite pleased we’ve raised as much money as we have in a short period of time, but we sure have a way to go.”

This blueberry field on Haystack Mountain in Montville is a part of 57 acres being conserved for wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation. (Courtesy of Cathy Roberts)

Having hiked Haystack Mountain on a sunny day in October several years ago, I’ve experienced the beauty of the location firsthand. It’s shaped like a rounded cone — or haystack — and a big rock pile marks its open summit.

Starting at Walker Elementary School in Liberty, a 1.1-mile, family-friendly trail forms a loop that visits the summit. When I visited, the pages of a storybook had been laminated and displayed along the trail so that hikers could read a story while hiking.

Also on that hike, my dog sniffed out a toad as it hopped through the woods. The toad got away unscathed.

Interested in the project, I sat down with Roberts and O’Herin to talk about the details and what’s next.

They told me that the group started small, collecting donations among themselves and a few friends to raise the $24,000 required to sign a purchase and sale agreement in June.

“That was our first celebration,” O’Herin said. “We got a bottle of champagne and popped the cork.”

From there, the group reached out to the community and applied for grants. The goal is to raise a minimum of $450,000. However, they’re also looking to raise money to fund the management of the land.

Midcoast Conservancy is acting as the group’s fiscal sponsor, which means the nonprofit land trust handles the donations, which are tax deductible. The land trust is also helping the group by providing assistance with public outreach.

The $150,000 raised so far has been through grants and private donors, which include individuals as well as local businesses and foundations. The grants the project has received so far are $22,700 from Maine Community Foundation and $10,000 from Davis Conservation Foundation.

“The community around us has really come out in such support,” Roberts said.

And it’s not all about monetary donations. Some members of the community have offered valuable expertise and services.

A local plant business, Rooted Elements, conducted a plant inventory on the property and provided Friends of Haystack Mountain an extensive report of their findings, which includes what pollinators feed on the plants.

“Part of the interest at this point is to really manage this property for wildlife and particular insects because we have all of these fields,” O’Herin said.

Students at Walker Elementary School have contributed to the effort by writing about their experiences on the mountain. Their stories will be posted on the Friends of Haystack Mountain website, along with photos of the children hiking the mountain. Students and teachers have been hiking the trail for decades.

In addition, the Liberty Library has secured a grant of $2,500 to put together a StoryWalk on the Haystack Mountain trail. The story will change with the seasons, so hikers can return and read a fresh story while following the trail.

The existing trail up the mountain is actually located on private land, but it has long been open to the public thanks to the landowners. Only the uppermost 100 feet of the trail is located on the property that’s being purchased by Friends of Haystack Mountain.

A group stands at the summit of Haystack Mountain in Montville, during the summer of 2022 for a stargazing event. (Courtesy of Cathy Roberts)

However, that 57-acre property that Friends of Haystack Mountain is purchasing is crucial because it includes the mountain’s open summit and the fields that keep the view open.

The management of the property is still in early planning phases, but it’s possible that a new trail could be developed on the conserved land.

“We’ve talked about mountain biking trails and other walking trails, but we haven’t gotten that far in the plan,” Roberts said.

One of the main goals is to continue traditional uses of the mountain, which includes hiking and snowmobiling on a designated trail.

To spread the word and gain feedback from the community, Friends of Haystack Mountain have hosted a few events such as group hikes, a stargazing event and a public forum.

“We’re looking at how we can get volunteers involved in different parts [of this project],” Roberts said. “There are a lot of things that have to be done, and it would be helpful to have more people participate.”

If interested in getting involved, visit the Friends of Haystack Mountain website haystackmountainmaine.org.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...