Maine group rallies to save island birding camp

Audubon Camp buildings and docks on Hog Island. Photo by Steve Cartwright.

Three-hundred-acre Hog Island on Maine’s Muscongus Bay has long been home to an environmental education center that is owned and run by the Audubon Society. The facility has been losing money for years and was on the brink of new ownership until a dedicated group of birders called Friends of Hog Island (FOHI) intervened.

The group hopes to head off a pending deal between National Audubon and Camp Kieve in Nobleboro, Maine, that would transfer ownership of the center’s infrastructure to the camp, which currently runs youth leadership and team-building programs on nearby Damariscotta Lake.

Chart of Hog Island
SAT map of Hog Island

After meeting with the new head of National Audubon, David Yarnold, in New York City, FOHI  president Juanita Roushdy was able to win a reprieve on the deal. FOHI will now try to raise enough money to keep the Audubon center running and turn it into a viable operation.

“I was thrilled,” Roushdy, of Bremen, Maine, said of the meeting. “We’re going to develop a business plan, a viable business over the long term.” Roushdy pointed out that both National Audubon and Maine Audubon Society have new leaders. “I just think things are different now. What we’re interested in is, where are we going from here. If we can raise a substantial amount of money in 6 months, that’s what I’m hoping for.”

A group of campers on the porch of The Bridge, the heart of the Hog Island Audubon complex. Photo courtesy Friends of Hog Island.

For 75 years, Hog Island has operated as a residential center for environmental education, and has hosted the likes of naturalist Rachel Carson and ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson.

The Hog Island center, situated on a small peninsula on the island’s northeast tip, is valued at $5 million. It includes docks, a dining and kitchen area, a lecture hall and a dormitory, as well as a rocky shore, mossy paths and sandy beaches. Hog Island itself lies within the town of Bremen and is exempt from local taxes. When former owner Millicent Bingham gave the island to National Audubon in 1936, she stipulated that it was “to be used solely as a wildlife sanctuary in teaching the aims and ideals of (society) in the study of conservation and wildlife, and not for any business or commercial purpose.”

A view from Hog Island's eastern shore. Photo courtesy Friends of Hog Island

Camp Kieve, a nonprofit program that operates year-round, says on its website that it “empowers young people and adults to contribute positively to society.” It runs separate boys and girls camps on Damariscotta Lake.

Earlier in 2010, the Mid-Coast Audubon Society sent a letter to its national counterpart saying, “The board and members of Mid-Coast Audubon are alarmed by recent rumors of the imminent transfer of Hog Island to Camp Kieve … If these rumors are true, we are disappointed that we were left in the dark and had no opportunity until now to approach our membership and the local community for possible alternatives.”

Roushdy, who moved to Maine from North Carolina a year ago, has many fond memories of Hog Island, and she is confident that she can make the center viable again. Even though Audubon officially closed the center last year, she points out that programs this past summer under the leadership of Steve Kress from Project Puffin and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology were successful.

The dedication plaque (1961). Photo courtesy Friends of Hog Island.

Native Americans once dug clams on the shores of Hog Island until driven off by European settlers in the 1600s. The settlers allegedly raised raised hogs on the island, and later felled white pines to make ship spars. In 1908, Mabel and David Todd acquired Hog Island to prevent overgrazing of pastures and clear-cutting of timber. The Todds built a summer cottage at one end of the island, now in decay. Their daughter Millicent worked with John Baker, then head of National Audubon, to establish that group’s first educational center, also known as Todd Wildlife Sanctuary, in 1961.

A former sail loft on the northeast tip of the island, along with a large frame house and dormitory, remain part of a cluster of rustic Audubon camp buildings. National Audubon turned over that portion of the property to Maine Audubon in 2000, while retaining title to most of the undeveloped island. The simple, shared-bathroom aspects of the camp were upgraded to a higher comfort level with the hope of attracting more paying guests, but apparently those renovations have not eased the financial burden for Audubon.

A group of campers pose for a farewell shot in front of the Fish House, the community building on the island. Photo courtesy Friends of Hog Island.

The letter to National Audubon from Mid-Coast Audubon board members concludes: “Hog Island holds a special place in the hearts of all those who have spent time on it. We trust that it will remain under the aegis of National Audubon, that Audubon programs will continue on the island, and that any legal changes would be transparent.”

Audubon has announced that programs will continue this coming summer, featuring seabird biology and conservation, bird studies for teens, field ornithology and the joy of birding.

For more information on Hog Island see:

Video: Audubon Camp in Maine on Hog Island

About the Author

Steve CartwrightSteve Cartwright likes to focus his writing and photography on what connects us to a person or a place. He is drawn to the beauty and simplicity of the Maine coast, where he lives. A native of New York City, he apprenticed, during college, to photographer Barbara Morgan and to the Maine Times, a crusading weekly. He created and edited a weekly for Native American tribes. After many years of reporting for various newspapers, Cartwright turned to freelance and volunteer work. He likes to run, swim, cook and just hang with friends. Married and the father of 2, he serves on the Waldoboro board of selectmen, the Tanglewood 4H Camp & Learning Center, and Good Tern Co-op. He coordinates community dances. He sails a 1964 Islander 32 called Sea Salt. You can learn more about Cartwright and his work at mainewrite.net

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