When Mid-Coast Audubon Society members and other local devotees of Hog Island — a 300-acre island off the coast of Bremen that has been an Audubon camp and education center for almost 75 years — heard rumors earlier this fall that ownership of the property might be transferred to Kieve-Wavus Education Inc., it ignited a swift and not altogether positive response.
“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,” Mid-Coast Audubon wrote in a letter sent to the Maine and National Audubon Societies in September.
Talks between National Audubon, Maine Audubon and Camp Kieve are ongoing and no firm agreement has been made as to the future of the $5 million property, said National Audubon Sr. Vice President of Education and Centers Judy Braus.
Although Braus declined to comment on specifics of the negotiations until they’re finalized, she confirmed that transfer of ownership is on the table but stressed that it is only one of several possibilities being discussed.
“Hog Island is a very special place for a lot of people who have been there over the years,” Braus said. “We’re looking for the best solution to protect the island and keep running the programs that the island is famous for. We haven’t made any commitment to anyone.”
Camp Kieve is an 85-year-old, Nobleboro-based nonprofit that operates year-round leadership camps for 10,000 kids each year, said third-generation Kieve Director Henry Kennedy.
Kennedy also declined to comment on specifics of the negotiations, but said he hopes a meeting between Kieve and Audubon scheduled for Dec. 1 will be “the next and final meeting.”
Opponents to a transfer of ownership see the move as a loss for Audubon and feel that the organization did not fully investigate options that would allow the island to remain entirely under Audubon’s control.
Mid-Coast Audubon, an affiliate of Maine Audubon, is not opposed to forming a partnership with Kieve or another organization, said Chapter President Sue Schubel.
“A partnership is a good thing, but if you’re not the owner, the future is uncertain,” Schubel said. “You can’t get a multi-million dollar island just any time.”
Mid-Coast Audubon’s primary concern is that Hog Island remains “an Audubon property, preserved in perpetuity,” Schubel said.
One local organization, Friends of Hog Island, is currently in the process of incorporating and receiving nonprofit status. FOHI membership overlaps to a large extent with Mid-Coast Audubon, and the group is trying to get National Audubon to delay their decision about the future of the island and consider FOHI as an alternative for partnership, said Juanita Roushdy, FOHI President and member of the Mid-Coast Audubon board of directors.
FOHI believes that Hog Island could become financially viable for Audubon through fundraising and better marketing of the island and the camps.
Attempts to find out from Audubon exactly how much FOHI would need to contribute each year to make the island financially sustainable have proven unsuccessful, Roushdy said. The group is currently operating with a goal of raising $50,000 per year and creating an additional endowment fund.
They started fundraising in September, and have already raised about $25,000, with more large contributions pending their approval as a tax-exempt nonprofit, Roushdy said. FOHI is asking National Audubon for two years to establish themselves and prove that they have sustainable funding to carry Hog Island into the future, Roushdy said.
The relative ease with which they’ve raised money so far speaks to the strong attachment many people feel to the place and the long-term viability of FOHI’s campaign, Roushdy said.
Hog Island is famous among birders, and some top ornithologists have worked on the island and in the Audubon programs. Since 1936, when former owner Millicent Todd Bingham gave it to National Audubon, thousands have attended residential camps on the island and many still recall them as life changing experiences.
In a recent letter to Mid-Coast Audubon, the Maine State Historic Preservation Commission indicated that the island’s place in conservation history would likely qualify it for the National Register of Historic Places, Schubel said.
Roushdy attended the camps as a child. When she moved to Maine from North Carolina last year, she chose Bremen because of her memories on Hog Island.
“It was such a unique experience,” Roushdy said. “The physical beauty of this area is amazing, and the instructors at the camps are leaders in the field of ornithology; you get to meet them like they’re family.”
Unfortunately, maintenance, staffing, insurance and the other costs associated with Hog Island have been a financial burden to Audubon for years, officials said.
In 2000, management of the property and camps was transferred from National Audubon to Maine Audubon. The two organizations are incorporated separately and do not share financial ties, officials said.
Although officials at National Audubon, Maine Audubon and Mid-Coast Audubon were somewhat unclear on the details of the arrangement, it appears National Audubon retained title to much of the island, with Maine Audubon taking over only the portion of the island with the camp buildings, said Maine Audubon Executive Director Ted Koffman.
Braus and Schubel said that National Audubon retains the title to the entire island, with only the buildings themselves under Maine Audubon ownership.
What’s clear, however, is that Maine Audubon took over financial responsibility for the island and the programs.
For much of the last decade, “we’ve run an average of a $100,000 per year deficit on Hog Island,” Koffman said.
In 2009, Maine Audubon canceled all camps on Hog Island. Even without running any camps, the organization can’t afford to maintain control of the island, Koffman said.
“It costs us $20,000 to $30,000 per year to keep it mothballed,” Koffman said. Maine Audubon has been trying for some time to transfer the property back to National Audubon, Koffman said.
In conjunction with National Audubon, they began seeking a long-term solution that would provide financial stability and allow the island to remain open to the public.
Working with an independent consultant, it was concluded that the best solution was to seek partnership with another organization, Braus said. She named The Chewonki Foundation, several universities and Kieve as groups that were considered.
The problem arose because, while Mid-Coast Audubon was aware significant changes were taking place in the management of Hog Island, they were caught off guard by the news that National Audubon was considering a transfer of ownership. Several members of the organization said they felt like National Audubon “pulled the rug out from under us.”
Mid-Coast Audubon was upset that they were not involved in the decision-making or at least kept informed as the process moved forward. FOHI were upset that National Audubon did not look locally for potential financial support.
Both National Audubon and Maine Audubon insisted that they were not making any effort to hide any aspect of the process.
Braus said no effort was made to shut local organizations out of the process, because “Audubon, unlike other conservation organizations, is truly about engaging people in communities.”
Koffman said Maine Audubon made an effort to inform all relevant stakeholders, and not involving Mid-Coast Audubon was an oversight, not an effort to conceal Audubon’s actions.
FOHI was not incorporated during the period that Audubon was exploring possible partners, but Roushdy said that had they known relinquishing ownership of the property was on the table, they would have acted sooner in their efforts to ensure that Audubon can maintain full control of the property. National Audubon will be meeting with FOHI on Nov. 23, Roushdy and Braus said.
“We just want to explore what the options are,” Braus said. “Any decision we make will be for what we believe is the best chance to protect the island.”
A natural choice
Kieve was a natural choice for a partner on Hog Island, Braus said, because Audubon and Kieve have had an informal partnership for more than 30 years.
The two organizations have frequently shared facilities and resources, and even before discussion about Hog Island began in earnest, Kieve had been seeking to formalize that relationship, Kennedy said.
“We’ve trying to do it with a piece of paper now, rather than a handshake,” Kennedy said. He cited frequent changes in Audubon leadership as a reason for the push towards formalizing the partnership.
“There’s so much turnover at Audubon it’s hard to know who to talk to,” Kennedy said.
Formalizing their relationship will ensure that it survives in the future, and in relation to Hog Island, Kennedy thinks that’s a positive thing.
“I’ve got a lot of passion for that place, and so do they, and we bring a lot of business acumen to the table,” Kennedy said.
In the midst of discussions about the future of Hog Island, National Audubon ran a relatively successful series of camps on the island in 2010, which opponents of transferring ownership to Kieve point to as a sign of financial viability.
However, the venture was not necessarily a standalone financial success, Koffman said. The program reportedly did not lose money for National Audubon, but that success was dependent on significant subsidies from Maine Audubon and Kieve, Koffman said.
Maine Audubon put a significant amount of money into the buildings, dock and other projects to prepare the island for campers, which they did not recoup from the 2010 camps, Koffman said.
Kieve provided the camps with heavily discounted rates for use of their boat and crew for transportation between the island and the mainland, which Kennedy said is an example of one of the major advantages of the formal partnership currently in the works.
“It doesn’t make any sense for two nonprofits in the same area to have duplicate resources,” Kennedy said.
Currently, Audubon’s greatest need for the boat is during the spring and fall, when birds are migrating; Kieve uses the boat primarily in the summer. The same holds true for some staff and other costs, Kennedy said.
Ultimately, Kennedy doesn’t believe that a partnership between Kieve and Audubon will change what takes place on Hog Island, regardless of what form the partnership takes. Should the property transfer to Kieve’s ownership, they will work closely with Audubon on any plans for the future of the island, he said.
“I see very little change, to be honest,” Kennedy said. “Except that more people will have a chance to learn from Audubon and Kieve.”
Audubon’s programming will continue to run on Hog Island, under Audubon’s direction, if a partnership is formed with Kieve.
Kieve’s stated mission is to “empower young people and adults to contribute positively to society,” according to their website, but teaching environmental stewardship is important to the organization, and they are making a shift toward including more environmental education in their curriculum, Kennedy said.
“It’s something we’ve been doing, but haven’t blown our horn about,” Kennedy said. Kieve recently finished a sizable capital campaign, rebuilt much of their two campuses and hired several new full-time employees, “and now it’s time to ramp up the program, including environmental education.”
Kennedy sees the Hog Island partnership as an asset in Kieve’s efforts to increase those programs.
Asked about the tangible benefits Kieve will receive from a formal partnership with Audubon, Kennedy said Kieve gets “a long term relationship with Audubon and access to a beautiful piece of property; it’s really a simple question to answer by going there. We cannot miss this opportunity.”
Kieve has recently received a significant amount of grant money, and Kennedy believes that a strong business plan and two solid partners will make Hog Island more attractive to donors and grant committees.
When asked if the reason they’re seeking this partnership is that Hog Island is a way to increase Kieve’s portfolio, both for donor and grant applications and as an advertising point for their programs, Kennedy replied, “From a purely revenue standpoint, I guess you could say that.”
Although it may not ease the concerns of those who fear Audubon will lose one of its crown jewels if they cede control of Hog Island, Kennedy and Braus both said that Kieve and Audubon share similar missions, and that teaching leadership and environmental stewardship go hand in hand.
More details about the nature of the partnership between Audubon and Kieve, if one is formed, and the future of Hog Island should be available after the Dec. 1 meeting. For now, all involved will have to wait and see.
“Luckily, we all want the same thing,” Kennedy said, echoing a statement made by almost everyone interviewed about the issue: “To protect the place and have good environmental education programs.”
National Audubon is currently taking applications for their 2011 summer programs on Hog Island.
The 2011 programming includes: Maine Seabird Biology and Conservation I, May 29-June 3; Joy of Birding, June 12-17; Field Ornithology, June 19-24; Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens, June 19-24; Sharing Nature: An Educator’s Week, July 14-19; Audubon Chapter Leadership Program, Aug. 15-20; Maine Seabird Biology and Conservation II, Sept. 11-16.
Information about the camps and how to register is available online at http://hogisland.audubon.org, or call 607-257-7308, ext. 14.
Reprinted with permission of The Lincoln County News.