Volume 8, No. 1
Promoting Cooperation to Maintain and Enhance
Environmental Quality in the Gulf of Maine
Spring 2004
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The Gulf of Maine Times

Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment

Building a bridge, one phone call at a time

Art Longard Award winner Elsa Martz is one determined steward

By Andi Rierden, Editor

Elsa Martz at home in Harpswell, Maine
Photo: Peter H. Taylor
Years ago Elsa Martz longed to find a way to restore the ebb and flow of the New Meadows River as it failed to circulate around Dingley Island, Maine. With the eyes and sensibility of a life-long naturalist, she studied the situation from her handcrafted home in Harpswell, noting how the sediment build-up around the causeway linking the town to the island had smothered the surrounding mudflats for several hundred feet. Aerial photographs only confirmed what she already knew: “that this causeway barrier was a big mistake. It just didn’t make any sense.” Imbued with the conviction—grounded firmly in her Quaker heritage—that one person can make a difference, Martz was not one to sit on the fence harping about what should be done.

With encouragement from a local wharf builder who estimated that replacing the causeway with a wooden bridge would cost a mere $40,000, Martz stepped into full throttle and became an unflagging proponent of the Dingley Island tidal flow restoration project.

Over the next seven years, underscored by a series of high hopes, setbacks and successes, her campaign grew to involve dozens of individuals, local, state and federal agencies and private corporations. Though the initial estimate proved to be well below the mark, Martz and other restoration supporters kept chipping away. Last summer, a section of the barrier between the island and Harpswell was removed, one side at a time to keep the road open. Working with a private engineering firm, U.S. Navy Seabees then constructed a small, but wide-opened bridge, re-establishing water flow.

By July, kayakers and other boaters sailed under the new passageway for the first time in more than 50 years. While it will take time to realize the full impact of the restoration, so far a study by students at Bowdoin College and anecdotal reports indicate that the water quality has improved and the clam-flats have expanded.

Martz, who has been the office manager of the physics department at Bowdoin for 15 years, credits her long association with the scientists for giving her the inspiration to see the project through. “All day long physicists look for solutions to problems and that has really rubbed off on me,” she says.

Starting from scratch

From a causeway…
The gradual blockage of the Dingley Island/Harpswell passageway began in the late 1800s when a local man dredged an ice pond on the island and established an ice business. To get the ice wagons across the mudflats his son built a fieldstone causeway with a 12-foot bridge opening. The bridge was later filled in, followed by the reconstruction in 1946 of a causeway without an opening. Thus began the slow but sure build up of silt.

“There was no environmental awareness back then,” Martz says. “People weren’t asking ‘will this hurt the clams or the fish?’ No, all anyone was concerned about was getting from one point to the another.”

A native of Massachusetts, Martz moved to Maine in the mid-1980s, bringing with her a large format view camera and a deep love of the Maine woods and waters. She eventually designed and helped build her passive solar home that she heats with a Finnish soapstone fireplace. The house rests in a clearing in the woods where these days she can view returning raptors as they spiral above the natural tidal movements of the New Meadows River.

She has documented the Dingley Island bridge project from start to finish on the New Meadows River Watershed Project’s Web site (http://academic.bowdoin.edu/new_meadows; click on Current Projects). Anyone hoping to undertake a similar restoration would be wise to study its contents. “It began on a cold spring day in 1996,” she opens. When, at a public meeting in Harpwell, the topic of the causeway barrier came up. A wharf builder said it would take about $40,000 to replace the structure with a wooden bridge, she continues. “That seemed surprisingly low and probably manageable so I offered to look into it.”

Later, a town official objected, saying a wooden bridge would be too costly to maintain. Even so, Martz had already begun piecing together an impressive and supportive network of contacts from the state’s transportation, planning and environment agencies. To begin the task of raising funds for the project, she found a “very generous” surveyor to conduct a bedrock analysis. A New Hampshire company supplied information on bridge options, “and eventually we had a plan and estimate for a 24-foot [concrete-cast] bridge.” But still, no funding.

Barriers and lifelines

…to a bridge, a river now runs free. Photos: Elsa Martz
Four years into the project, she spotted a notice in the local paper from Coastal America announcing a program, “to remedy harmful environmental situations involving wetlands.” She contacted the office, which agreed on the merits of the Dingley Island restoration project and set up a foundation to hold donations and matching funds.

When Martz came up against communication and funding snags, Coastal America representatives, Martz added, “were extremely generous with their time and expertise. They were my lifeline along the way.”

Coastal America also acted as the liaison with the U.S. military’s Innovative Readiness Program that supplies labor and other expertise to restore wetlands and aquatic habitats. In the case of Dingley Island, Navy reservists called Seabees were called in to construct the bridge.

Besides bridge plans and construction estimates, the project needed feasibility and baseline studies as well as permits to go forward. The network of government administrators, utility operators, engineers, Seabees, local clam diggers and so forth, kept expanding. At one point, Martz says, “I had 22 agencies on my daily list. It could be overwhelming.”

In 2001 Martz applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Community-based Habitat Restoration Program and eventually received $75,000. Matching funds came from the Gulf of Maine Council, private donations and the Maine Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership. (Local partners included the Town of Harpswell, Bowdoin College students and faculty, Dingley Island residents and the New Meadows River Watershed Project.) In all, project supporters raised around $210,000 in grants and in-kind donations.

Construction of the bridge began on May 19, 2003. “As the construction progressed, local residents began to take interest,” Martz writes. “If the Seabees are working so hard on a bridge for Harpswell [residents thought] it must be a good idea.”

The tide flowed through the causeway on July 10 for the first time in decades. When work crews finished the job on August 1, Martz continues, “the 24-foot bridge looked like it had always been there.”

One of the most important pieces of advice Martz says she can offer anyone pursuing a similar project: thank everybody. “I wrote dozens of thank you letters before, during and after the project was completed,” she said. “It’s important for people to know they are appreciated. They need that recognition.”

As for the future, Martz plans to volunteer for local environmental projects, as a writer, copy editor or photographer. With the donation money remaining for the project, she plans to hire a marine biologist to conduct a follow-up study on the restored area within five years.

Not long ago, she approached a man digging for clams along the mudflats between Harpswell and Dingley Island. “How’s it going?” Martz asked.

“You know,” the man replied, “there are air holes appearing closer to the bridge.” For Martz it was a sigh of relief and a reaffirmation.

When asked why she didn’t throw in the towel during those times of frustration, Martz says without a pause, “I’m just a determined woman; that’s all.”