Volume 7, No. 2

Promoting Cooperation to Maintain and Enhance
Environmental Quality in the Gulf of Maine

Summer 2003
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Profile: Bill Ayer, Nature Trust of NB

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Profile: Bill Ayer, the Nature Trust of New Brunswick

By Andi Rierden, Editor

Bill Ayer is describing his hometown during the 1940s and 50s. Gray, Maine was a stone's throw from the free-flowing brook and wild lands where he used to fish and hunt; a hub surrounded by a wide-open valley of dairy farms and woodlots. Such intriguing landscape and its ability to thrill and inspire gave his life shape and resonance.

Bill Ayer with New Brunswick's Minister of the Environment and Local Government Kim Jardine, at the L'Etang Islands Nature Preserve donated to the Nature Trust by Bob Stewart of Maine. Photo courtesy of Margo Sheppard

But the construction of the Maine Turnpike catapulted this rural valley, which had changed little since colonial times, into a new era. The roadway sliced through and altered the brook and farm roads, and eventually transformed Gray into a "bedroom" community for Lewiston and Portland.

Shortly after the highway's completion in the mid-50s, Ayer's father told him that one day soon new homes and other development would dot the valley and its hillsides.

"At the time, I found it hard to believe," Ayer says. "But my father's prophecy has come true. Today both sides of the road that he said would be built up have been developed. The development has spread through the valley and now there are many new subdivisions on one side of the valley and a golf course on the other.

"Clearly it can be said that progress has been made, but it saddens me because the farmland I experienced and the land use that I enjoyed...has changed forever."

Ayer's story strikes a cord with many of the nearly 100 participants who have come to Fredericton, New Brunswick to take part in the Nature Trust of New Brunswick's first Land Conservation Conference. They have traveled from New England, Ontario and across the Maritimes to meet with conservation professionals and discuss like-minded projects in their communities. Many have experienced a similar reshaping of their towns and surroundings from land development, population growth or shifts.

As the trust's president, Ayer reminds his audience that while such changes to the landscape are cause for concern, they should consider also the vitality of the land conservation movement. "Right now there are 1,200 land trusts across the United States with 85 in Maine, 120 in Massachusetts and 87 in Canada, up from 60 three years ago," he says. At the local level, the province of New Brunswick has established ten protected areas, containing 350,000 acres and the Nature Conservancy of Canada has place over 3,000 acres in Atlantic Canada under protection. Locally, the Nature Trust of New Brunswick has set aside 20 preserves encompassing 2,000 acres, including 15 coastal islands, which represent over 10 percent of the total number of islands in the Bay of Fundy.

"The trends are certainly encouraging," Ayer says.

Perhaps no one knows more about the past and present of land use on both sides of the U.S. and Canadian border than Ayer. After a boyhood of hunting and fishing in Maine, Ayer became a fish biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department before moving to New Brunswick in 1970 where he worked for nearly 30 years as an environmental manager for what is now the Department of Environment and Local Government. In his last assignment, Ayer headed the Sustainable Planning Branch for ELG and acted as the province's Director of Community Planning. A founder of the Gulf of Maine Council, Ayer served on its working group until last year when he retired from government. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded the Council, and in particular, Ayer and several other long-time members, the 2002 Environmental Merit Award, "for their innovative and sustained commitment to improving management of the Gulf."

Cape Enrage Marsh Nature Preserve. Photo: Andi Rierden

A dedicated conservationist, Ayer's move to the Nature Trust seems almost fated. Six years ago, he and his wife Sharan, became the first property owners in Canada to donate land under the federal Eco-donor program. The property, a striking 65-acre [26-hectare] stretch of salt marsh, barrier beach and uplands on Cape Enrage, New Brunswick in the Upper Bay of Fundy, is now owned and managed by the Nature Trust as the Cape Enrage Marsh Nature Preserve. The coastal region receives several thousand tourists each year.

Ayer said he discovered the property by chance as he was driving up the coast. "I'm the type of guy that will hit a dirt road just to see where it goes," he says. "I drove out [to the Cape Enrage region] took one look at it and my heart went with it."

Nevertheless, the Ayers recognized the ecological and historical importance of the property and wanted to see it preserved. "We felt certain from the beginning that the basic nature and beauty of the place should be set aside for the future," he says. "We were also convinced that it would leave a continuity of place in our new home in New Brunswick–to pass on a piece of this planet in near pristine condition–hoping it would provide an example to visitors to Cape Enrage of a how a 10,000-year-old Bay of Fundy salt marsh ecosystem should look like forever."

Founded in 1987, the Nature Trust, in addition to its land holdings–which local stewards monitor–offers a number of education and outreach programs. A database of 900 sites, for example, identifies ecologically significant places throughout the province and is used by government agencies, industry and nonprofit groups.

Trust staff and volunteers use the data to inform landowners about rare plants or other special features on their property in hopes that they will protect them. "Once you tell people they have a rare plant or special feature on their land, they are pleased," Ayer says. "From there, we try to work with them, to work out an easement or a written agreement, which is nonbinding, saying they will protect the resources."

The conference brought together a full range of land conservationists, such as representatives from the fledgling Newfoundland and Labrador Legacy Nature Trust, to veterans like Keith Ross of the New England Forestry Foundation, founded in the mid-1940s. Last year, NEFF closed the largest forestland conservation easement in the history of the United States–762,192 acres [304,876 hectares] in northern Maine for a price of $28,142,316 [$39,049,034 CAD]. As the keynote speaker, Ross detailed NEFF's ordeal to raise financing for the project from 45 foundations and garner the support of a broad coalition of conservation and sporting groups.

"A lot of the larger projects are just like the smaller projects," Ross said. "It's just like stacking cordwood, you just do it a little bit at a time."

As the Nature Trust develops its strategic plan, it plans to keep those lessons in mind. Ayer would like to continue to build partnerships throughout the province, working closely with local land protection groups. While they are exploring different options, the final outcome may be similar to the model developed by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which acts as a facilitator for property owners, local groups and government agencies to maintain a conservation project's momentum.

Ayer also sees the Trust involved at the community planning level. With environmental systems in the province under heavy stress, Ayer says, and a 35 percent increase in coastal subdivision construction over recent years, more communities in New Brunswick need sound land-use plans.

"You just can't overestimate the importance of good planning," he continues. "And a good plan is setting up land-use protections where they should occur, and industrial activities and development where they should occur. Groups like the Nature Trust can be a part of that mosaic."

To find out more about the Nature Trust of New Brunswick, access http://www.naturetrust.nb.ca.