Professor Richard Barringer likes to start at the beginning when he begins the tale of the outdoor funding windfall heading for Maine. But really, the good timing and hope in this story is in what could happen in 2012.

Either way, his story is one worth telling.

Last year the University of Southern Maine professor handed a report he was commissioned to write by the New England governors to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar who, he said, passed it on to President Obama. And the chiefs at the helm of America’s outdoors policy liked what they saw.

Barringer’s report very closely aligned with Obama’s goals laid out in America’s Great Outdoors initiative rolled out by the president in April 2010. It highlighted seven projects around major natural corridors in New England that with relatively little funding could change the way Americans here live, work, play, recreate and relate to the environment.

These projects would fight childhood obesity, reinvest our collective passion in land, and bring nature and good health into our everyday lives.

But like a seasoned professor, Barringer takes even a bigger view of the history that could play out here.

“Let me take you back further, all the way back to 1908 when the governors of New England gathered to talk about the devastated headwaters, the logging practices,” Barringer said Thursday. “The result of that meeting was the Green Mountain and White Mountain national forests. In 2008, the New England governors memorialized that meeting and created this commission on land conservation.”

Barringer chaired that commission and worked on the ensuing report. Then last spring the National Park Service asked him to do more with that report, and gave him a $10,000 grant to study the seven projects more in depth.

Barringer concluded those seven natural corridors in New England accounted for 85 percent of the area New Englanders lived along — and incredibly, three go right through Maine.

Those corridors are the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, the off-road East Coast Greenway and the Androscoggin River, which Barringer points out with a good bit of irony (as a professor at the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service) was the poster child for Ed Muskie’s Clean Water Act in the 1970s.

But unlike so many good ideas or well-intended reports, Barringer’s study went right to the top.

“Low and behold, what the president was saying in America’s Outdoors Initiative is what we (on the governors’ commission were already) saying. I was very pleased he was saying very much the same thing as we were saying,” Barringer said

And the professor added with a happy laugh: “And by the way, it’s an election year.”

Well isn’t that great timing?

In 2011 the Northern Forest Canoe Trail did more volunteer work than ever, and executive director Kate Williams said in about five years it will start looking more like the Appalachian Trail by way of human traffic.

And in southern Maine this year, a windfall of bicycle and pedestrian grant cash allowed the East Coast Greenway, called the Eastern Trail here, to get a bridge over Interstate 95 in Kennebunk and another over Route 1 in Saco — nearly turning it into a contiguous off-road trail through seven urban towns.

This summer, Maine Department of Transportation bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Dan Stewart said the final several miles in that stretch will get done in the next five years, linking Casco Bay through woods and marshes all the way to Wells. Incredible. And Mainers did it on their own.

“Dan Stewart is the best at that position in the country. That will get funded,” Barringer said.

Finally, the Androscoggin River, along which the Androscoggin Riverlands State Park opened for business last year, has an ally in the new mayor in Auburn — who also happens to be the energetic executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust.

Can you see where that’s going?

Newly elected Mayor Jonathan Labonte, like Barringer, sounded guardedly optimistic Thursday that access to the outdoors in his area would be improved in short order with help from the federal level.

“Our organization worked with the National Park Service (on the report) to put together that section. It deals with the Androscoggin River. Certainly from our perspective, it is a significant opportunity to reconnect Lewiston and Auburn, a fairly underserved area, with recreation and economic development opportunities,” Labonte said. “It’s probably one of the most significant opportunities.”

In fact, Barringer thinks in the next six months, the Androscoggin River corridor will be funded — and the other two projects could follow soon.

The Androscoggin River corridor will take an estimated $26.6 million to develop river access in several towns in Maine and New Hampshire along the river. The East Coast Greenway in New England, including the sections in Maine, is also estimated to cost $26 million. And the Northern Forest Canoe Trail’s improved access is estimated to cost $725,000.

Still Barringer believes in the next five years, these projects may all be funded.

“I think it’s very good news for Maine and for the region as a whole,” Barringer said. “And, this is an aside, but as much dysfunction as there is in Washington, I found it heartening how much good is being done at the local level. There are scores of people who want what’s best for their community and they are working with whatever resources they have to improve their lives. They’re saying, ‘We could use the help, but we’ll keep working.’ It’s inspiring, truly inspiring.”

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.