Howard Hill is a unique and spectacular conservation project. It will be the dollop of ice cream on top of our state dessert, the blueberry pie. Towering over the Capitol, Howard Hill will forever emphasize that Maine is a state where the people value conservation and their very best and special places.

The announcement last week that the Kennebec Land Trust has launched a drive to purchase Howard Hill, that 164-acre wooded hillside you can see from many windows in the Capitol, is very exciting.

There’s a precedent for this new project. In the 1890s, William Howard Grant purchased the property, built a mansion there and established Ganneston Park with trails, carriage paths, small ponds and woodland. The property was a state game preserve from 1930 to 1969.

I’ve known about the project for a while, but have been unable to express my excitement while the deal was in progress. I am an active member of the Kennebec Land Trust, an outstanding regional organization that has conserved many of my favorite places in this area, including a woodlot in North Wayne where Dad and I have hunted for a half-century. And yes, the land trust has kept it open for hunting.

We probably won’t see much hunting on Howard Hill, although you can bow hunt there in the special archery zone (designed to keep the deer herd in check).

Howard Hill is a unique place in the middle of a capital city, a wilderness-like setting of steep ravines, cliffs, granite overlooks, mixed forest, a year-round gorgeous stream and lots of wild critters (even moose!) and wonderful birds. Staff at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, from the windows of their State Street headquarters, have been watching bald eagles up on Howard Hill, and think they may be nesting there. The hill features stunning views from and to the Capitol. The network of old carriage roads offers lots of walking and hiking opportunities.

I’m thinking of it as a place for legislators, lobbyists and the public to retreat from the bustle at the State House, to help them remember why they are there. Maybe we’ll have demonstrations of “what habitat can do for you.” There is so much that can and should be done here.

I’m thinking this morning of the famous 1836 painting of the State House and Howard Hill that shows the farming landscape that was Maine for more than 100 years. Is there any other state capital where land adjacent to state buildings is undeveloped and still available to be protected and conserved? It is amazing that something this special exists so close to the Capitol.

We are very lucky to have this opportunity, because the city once approved a 55-lot subdivision on Howard Hill that never occurred. That was before we all figured out that conservation of our best places is the key to assuring that Maine remains the place we love today.

I also like the plan to turn the property over to the city of Augusta, whose comprehensive plan calls for the creation of a greenbelt and more land conservation. Specifically, the city’s facilities plan calls for acquisition of Howard Hill to protect views to and from the Capitol.

During my 18 years as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I had the privilege and opportunity to encourage and support most of the state’s major conservation projects, including a long stint on the Forest Legacy Advisory Board. We can all be very proud of our state’s conservation achievements.

And now we have a chance to put an exclamation mark on those achievements, on land within sight of the Capitol. Kennebec Land Trust is tackling its greatest fundraising challenge with this project, and you will have a chance to donate.

The land trust will hold public events throughout the year, including a 25th anniversary celebration with local food, music, children’s events and a triathlon in August, and two art shows in October. In addition, a hiking guide featuring 20 land trust properties will be published this summer, sponsored by local businesses. Kennebec Savings Bank, a longtime land trust business partner, recently announced a lead gift of $25,000 in support of the campaign and the hiking guide.

While significant contributions from programs such as the Land for Maine’s Future will be essential, I hope to see a strong response from the grassroots — let’s call it the forest roots — with donations from each of us. You can donate now on the Kennebec Land Trust website, www.kennebeclandtrust.org, or call at 377-2848. After all, we all love ice cream and blueberry pie.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.