Visionaries in the Gulf of Maine
By Susan Llewelyn Leach
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For years as a young lad Roger
Berle would heed his mothers request to take out the trash.
On Cliff Island that meant dragging the bag from under the kitchen
sink and trotting down to the shoreline to toss it in the ocean.
Its a story he tells with
wry irony. As one of the most energetic and effective proponents
of conservation in Maines Casco Bay, Berle said hes
been making up for that trash misadventure ever since.
In the intervening years, his
focus has been as much about preserving island life as it has
the natural habitat that makes that life so appealing.
That has meant helping bolster
Maines island populations, which have dwindled over the
decades from a high of 300 year-round island communities 150
years ago to 15 today. Of those, Berle said, 60 percent are struggling
to maintain their head count. Cliff Island, where he was raised,
is among them.
Soaring house prices, shrinking
schools and the lure of city jobs work against a revival. But
Berle sees it as a test of commitment to quality of life and
we all move to cities and were satisfied with a strip of
grass along the sidewalk, then thats fine
water is an elemental draw for most of us, particularly in Maine,
then were going to work for it, he said.
His first official foray into
buoying island life was the Cliff Island Corporation for Athletics,
Conservation, and Education a name worthy of Wall Street
but better known to locals as ACE. Berle founded ACE in 1977
and built a sense of community and teamwork through weekly ball
ACEs goal was to bolster
that spirit and foster a sense of stewardship for the tiny island,
an ethic that included protecting the open land and resources.
ACE also brought interns to the school and families to live on
Cliff Island faced its own crisis
in the 1970s when the island school slipped below the minimum
eight pupils required to keep state funding. If the school closed,
more residents would leave and the population would sink more.
The solution came in the form of a welfare family with six children
and an island community willing to pitch in and renovate a home
for them that Berle had purchased.
That kind of creativity is a
hallmark of Berles modus operandi. In a more recent example
of his innovativeness, Oceanside Conservation Trust (OCT), the
land trust he has served on for 25 years, recently became part
of a collaborative with two other trusts to pool resources and
The spur for creating Portland
North Land Trust Collaborative came in the late 1990s when pressure
on island and coastal property from deep-pocketed developers
was huge and the offers outrageous, as Berle put
it. By contrast, for 15 years OCT had been operating at a glacial
pace and wary of financial risk.The collaboratives plan
is to respond faster to opportunities.
When it comes to conservation,
the bottom line for Berle is that youre either going forward
or moving back. Theres no standing still.
Susan Llewelyn Leach is a
free-lance writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.