Stetson Stories

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Most Mainers support green energy wind projects, properly sited. But this column is not about wind power. I wanted to find out if wind projects benefited local people, programs, and economies. So I headed north to Danforth, next door to First Wind’s Stetson Mountain wind towers. Here’s what I discovered.

Outdoor Kids

Imagine a bunch of teenagers up before dawn to paddle canoes around a lake before school. Fourteen years ago when David Conley started his outdoor program for the East Grand School system, he probably could not have imagined it. Now he lives it. Connelly offers what may be the most successful outdoor program for kids from 5th to 12th grades in the state. And he’s tucked into one of Maine’s most remote off-the-beaten-path places. “We’re using recreation as a tool for building confidence, team work, outdoor appreciation, and environmental awareness,” said Connelly, an avid sportsmen who takes kids into the wilderness setting of the Baskahegan year round, with winter camping one of his most popular activities.

In a school district that is anything but wealthy, Connelly has mastered the art of grant writing and bargain shopping, and this is where I first found First Wind’s footprint in the community. “First Wind gave us a total of $7,000,” reported Connelly, most of which was spent on equipment. I peaked into the school’s storage building to find an amazing array of outdoor gear including bikes, canoes, top-of-the-line tents and sleeping bags, wetsuits, and much more. I was very envious of his carbon paddles, obtained with a grant from LL Bean.

Outdoor Education student Kevin Hagerty learning how to call a moose.But it was at a community supper that I gained a full appreciation for what this program delivers. Cleve Kenyon, a senior who was working in the chow line, told me he’s been in Connelly’s program for three years. “I just like to go out in nature,” he said, “biking, rock climbing, cross country skiing, winter camping.” Cleve is a big kid whose enthusiasm for the outdoors must be infectious. He’s loves to hunt and fish, but it was obvious that Connelly’s program has significantly extended his outdoor experiences and interests, and added an appreciation for the environment that surrounds him in the woods that I didn’t gain as a sportsman until I was in my forties. When Cleve began talking about his outdoor adventure in Canada, I found out just how far Connelly will go to show these kids that there is a world beyond Danforth. Very impressive!

Kinney’s Garage

221,770 gallons of off-road fuel. That’s what First Wind’s project meant to Kinney’s Garage in Danforth. Loree Ross, daughter of garage owner Harry Kinney, said their family business delivered fuel to the project site in trucks that usually serviced their logging company. They also sold “tons of tires,” she reported with quite a bit of enthusiasm. The site was tough on tires, apparently. And she sold lots of “fittings” and other things. I assumed the project’s benefits ran out when after the towers were constructed, but Loree said no. On-going maintenance at the towers continues to bring business to the gas pumps outside her store. “They came back last month to repair the road,” she said, “and gave us more business.”

But despite the benefits to her business, Ross is skeptical about a new wind project proposed for Danforth by another company. I found that project to be very controversial in the community, offering some validation to my thought that proper siting is the key to not only wind projects, but all development in a state where people value and fight for their high quality environment.

First Settlers Lodge

First Settlers Lodge I discovered this amazing place many years ago when the Board of Directors of the Sportsman’s Alliance held its annual planning retreat here. My wife Linda and I have returned many times for weekend get-a-ways. The lodge’s huge comfortable rooms, fantastic views of Mt. Katahdin and East Grand Lake, and fabulous home-style food, are a major draw, but we also enjoy quietly snowshoeing through the woods from the lodge to the lake, catching salmon and bass in the lake, and setting aside our phones and computers to read, reflect, and relax. So I was particularly pleased to learn that lodge owners Elbridge and Judy Cleaves benefited from the Stetson projects.

For two years, as Stetson I and Stetson II were built, Judy provided lodging and two meals a day to workers, especially important in the winter when the lodge is not busy. “It was the first time we ever made a profit in the winter,” confided Judy. The project continues to bring business to the lodge when workers are in town for maintenance on the towers and roads and when First Wind hosts tours and receptions. “We fed 30 people two weeks ago on the site,” reported Judy. She had half the sandwiches made at a local store, spreading the wealth. But the benefit she seemed to cherish most was not the profit. “We made lifelong friends,” she said, “and met very interesting people. Some are sending photos of their kids. They have become family.” And in a very typical Maine comment, Judy said her First Wind guests have been, “sharp as a tack and the nicest people.” That’s as big a compliment as you’ll ever get from a Mainer.

Stetson Mountain Fund First Wind has contributed $125,000 to create the Stetson Mountain Fund, anchored in Washington County and administered by the Forest Society of Maine. Grants will begin to be awarded early next year after a study of the recreational needs of the area is completed. Three county residents serve as the Fund Advisory Committee: Jackie Jones of Machias Savings Bank, Elbridge Cleaves of First Settlers Lodge, and Roger Milliken, owner of Baskahegan forest lands.

The Fund was created to provide grants to local groups and communities to maintain and enhance access to recreational opportunities within the 250 square mile Baskahegan Stream watershed that arises from the slopes of Stetson Mountain. A $10,000 grant of First Wind TIF money went to the Forest Society of Maine to fund a study of the watershed to help plan nature-based tourism improvements in this northern Washington County region. The study was conducted by University of Machias students under the direction of Professor Andrea Ednie. Students counted vehicles at launch sites, surveyed visitors about their experiences, mapped use on the lakes, and assessed campsites. Their findings will be presented by the end of the year. And then folks like David Connelly can obtain grants to support and enhance the East Grand School’s outdoor program, improve access and experiences in the Baskahegan watershed, and build a better recreational economy. You have to love it.

Washington County college students performing a study that will allow Washington County leaders to award grants to Washington County groups and businesses including David Connelly’s program that means so much to Washington County middle and high school students with money from a green energy Washington County wind project. TIF The first Tax Increment Financing proposal in Maine’s unorganized territories was approved last year by the Washington County Commissioners for First Wind’s Stetson Mountain projects. TIFs allow local governments to use new property taxes for economic development purposes, and Washington County has jumped into this in a big way. The First Wind TIF generates $450,000 annually for a grant fund managed by the County Commissioners and Sunrise County Economic Council.

In other words, First Wind’s is a project that keeps on giving. And businesses within the unorganized territories of Washington County are the ones that will keep on getting. The initial list of grants, awarded this year, is impressive: $9500 to Sunrise County Solar for equipment to use in energy audits for local residents and work on developing home wind turbines and solar energy panels; $10,000 to Tidewalker Engineering to assist with research for a small tidal power project in Trescott; $15,000 to Eagle Mountain Service to help purchase a lodge; $100,000 over three years to Cobscook Community Learning Center to build Heartwood Lodge. The smallest grant of $1,150 went to Clean Earth Farms to study the potential of raised vegetable garden beds for residents of the unorganized territories. Two grants really got my personal interest. One grant of $10,000 went to the Forest Society of Maine to fund the study described above of the Baskahegan watershed for the Stetson Mountain Fund Committee. The other grant provided $49,500 to the Downeast Lakes Land Trust (www.downeastlakes.org) for road and culvert improvements in the Wabassus Lake Tract, a very significant project in partnership with Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands to preserve and improve access to the Machias River between Route 9 and Grand Lake Stream for hunting, fishing, and canoeing. Three key access roads will be improved in this $285,000 project.

Great Adventure Race

The Adventure Race is scheduled for May 14 this year. It’s East Grand’s version of a triathlon, organized by David Connelly and his outdoor kids. Last year dozens of kids and adults ran more than a mile through the woods, jumped on mountain bikes for a nine mile ride up and over Stetson Mountain where they rode right by First Wind’s towers, and then paddled nine miles of Baskahegan Stream and Crooked Brook. All I could think of was “ouch!” The race has grown larger each year and now draws participants from large schools in southern Maine. “It’s getting harder for our school to compete,” noted Connelly. What he means is its difficult for a school with 44 students to beat schools with many hundreds of students. But not to compete. Connelly’s kids are real competitors, they just need to expand the Adventure Race to winter camping. The kids from southern Maine wouldn’t stand a chance.

Conclusions

I traveled to Danforth to find out if there were one-time and on-going benefits from First Wind’s Stetson Mountain Project. I found plenty, but more inspiring, I found a community that has refused to quit on itself, despite a school system that is down to 45 high school students, despite a serious lack of employment opportunities, despite the tough day-to-day trials of making a living and raising a family and growing old in a place that is just remote enough to be off the radar for the state’s leaders and businesses. And yes, a place where the wind blows, and where that wind has been harnessed to not only produce energy, but also to help sustain a community.

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