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

Group rallies to save Maine birding island

A group of volunteers has headed off — at least for now — a deal to transfer ownership of Hog Island in Muscongus Bay from the National Audubon Society to Camp Kieve in Nobleboro.

Instructor Sara Morris with Audubon campers.

Three-hundred-acre Hog Island, long a Maine study center for serious birders, has been losing money for years and is on the brink of having new owners. But a dedicated group of birders called Friends of Hog Island hopes to raise enough money to keep it in Audubon hands.

A deal seemed imminent until the Friends of Hog Island intervened. Juanita Roushdy of Bremen, Maine, president of the Friends group, traveled to New York City and met for 90 minutes with the new head of National Audubon, David Yarnold, and also met with Ted Koffman, new chief at Maine Audubon.

“I was thrilled,” said Roushdy. “We’re going to develop a business plan, a viable business over the long term.” Roushdy pointed out both state and national societies 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 six months, that’s what I’m hoping for.”

She and others have been stuffing envelopes for a mailing to more than 2,000 potential supporters of Hog Island.

Hog Island campers gather for an orientation.

For 75 years, the wooded island has operated as a residential center for education. It has hosted the likes of naturalist Rachel Carson and ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson. Kieve, on nearby Damariscotta Lake, has been run by the same family for 85 years and operates year-round leadership and team-building programs.

Hog Island, valued at $5 million, includes a dock, dining and kitchen area, lecture hall and dormitory, as well as a rocky shore, mossy paths and sandy beaches. It lies within the town of Bremen and is exempt from local taxes. When one-time 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 the (society) in the study of conservation and wildlife, and not for any business or commercial purpose.”

Potential Audubon/Kieve partnership on Hog Island creates local anxiety

Hog Island as seen from the Hockomock Trail. (Paula Roberts photo)

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.

Financially challenging

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.

An open letter to National Audubon

Juanita Roushdy is the president of the Friends of Hog Island. David Yarnold is president and CEO of National Audubon.

Dear David,

Since my last e-mail to you on September 10, 2010, many things have happened regarding Hog Island in Maine.  I personally still have faith in National Audubon that it will defer it’s decision to transfer ownership to Camp Kieve for at least 2 years. Doing so will give the Friends of Hog Island and the new programming under Project Puffin and Steve Kress time to prove that  Hog Island can truly be financially successful with the right mix — management, volunteers, programs.

The program model in 2010 was in the black, and, because of high ratings, high early response, and teacher programs, 2011 is promising to be even more financially successful. The new partnership formed with Camp Kieve could continue without leasing or turning over ownership. The new partnership with Road Scholar is proving successful and providing another demographic .

Since September 10, 2010, the Friends of Hog Island has incorporated, filed for 501(c)(3) status, adopted by-laws, formed a board with such members as Kenn Kaufman, Walt Pomeroy, and Scott Weidensaul, and revamped its website. It has in hand, without asking, donations in the five figures; it has a fundraising package ready to be mailed; and is working on a fundraising plan for the 75th anniversary and beyond, including an endowment. It is reconnecting and building its volunteer base; and most important, it has located missing camper lists for the past 20 years and is currently putting that information into electronic format — another 5,000 plus names.

The Friends of Hog Island believes in openness and transparency and to that end has kept its website updated with any discussion about Hog Island. Please browse through it to learn about the board, the history, and past campers’ unsolicited testimonies.

There is a large grass-roots support for the Audubon Camp at Hog Island. Grass-roots support is what National Audubon was built on. It was the reason that Toyota chose, out of all the excellent conservation groups, Audubon for its Together Green program. None had as broad-based grass-roots support as Audubon.

I would be happy to come to New York and meet with you at your convenience.

Sincerely,

Juanita

“Hog Island takes hold of you. There are many beautiful places, but this one will change your life” – Scott Weidensaul

Comments on Hog Island ownership from around the Web

Here is a round-up of opinions on Hog Island developments from out on the Web.

What’s up with Audubon by Rob Fergus at The Birdchaser

“I just got news that Audubon is about to ditch its historic Hog Island nature camp in Maine, where Roger Tory Peterson used to be a counselor, and where generations of Audubon members have created bonds to nature that have sustained them as they’ve engaged in the tough work needed to protect the environment for future generations.”

Hog Island by the Bremen Conservation Commission

“A news article in the newspaper Working Waterfront reports the Audubon Society may give Hog Island to Camp Kieve-Wavus, the children’s camp headquartered in Nobleboro.

“More information, including a recent letter from National Audubon concerning the possible transfer, is available on  the Friends of Hog Island website

“Meanwhile, the Hog Island Camp will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2011.  See the FOHI website for more details and registration information for classes next summer.

Audubon to No Longer Own Hog Island? by Corey Finger at 10,000 Birds

“It is just plain sad, short-sighted, and shockingly stupid for National Audubon to give away a part of American birding history as iconic as Hog Island.  It is hard to believe that money can’t be found to keep a tax-exempt, 300-acre island from operating in the red.  Though National Audubon claims no donor stepped forward I haven’t heard of them searching for a donor until, well, now that they are getting rid of the island.  They didn’t even ask the local Audubon group….”

Audubon’s Identity Problem – by Rob Fergus at The Birdchaser

“Audubon has responded to the news story about its attempt to get rid of its historic Hog Island camp, and the furor that it is raising online and here among the grassroots, with a FAQ page posted to their website last night.

“But Audubon doesn’t have a PR problem. It has an identity problem.

“Is Audubon just a big national environmental organization fueled by grant moneys, rich donors and the magazine subscriptions of its ‘members’? Or is it a community — a true society — that will enjoy coming together at places like Hog Island to celebrate their past and grow together as a stronger force for the good of birds, other wildlife, and our shared environment?…”

Why I love Audubon by Rob Fergus at The Birdchaser

“I’d just like to highlight some of what I really love about Audubon. Mostly people who are doing great work, some of which you may not have heard of. There are thousands of them across the country, passionate and effective Auduboners at the National, State and local chapter level. Here are just a few:

“1) Stephen Kress. For decades, against all odds, Dr. Kress has put together one of the most effective bird conservation programs in Audubon. He has brought puffins and nesting terns back to the coast of Maine, and has solid data to show the effectiveness of his work. He has trained hundreds of young interns over the years, and his work is an inspiration for similar projects around the world….”