The Maine Waterside Trails center that will be built along the East Branch of the Penobscot River as part of a $5 million philanthropic gift will serve as an outdoor education center for youth, adding to environmental and conservation efforts in the Katahdin region.

The Butler Conservation Fund, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmental stewardship, announced this week it is donating $5 million to build the center, multi-use trails modeled after the ones in Acadia National Park, and campsites on 4,300 acres. The center will be the home of the Butler foundation’s Maine Outdoor Education Program, which has offered outdoor experiences to children grades 4 through 12 since 2012.

The center will be located off the Grindstone Scenic Byway north of Millinocket on an 8.6-mile section of the East Branch and a 1.2-mile section of Mud Brook owned by the Open Space Institute and managed by The Nature Conservancy. The center and its 19 miles of trails will be open to the public.

The Butler Conservation Fund was created by Gilbert Butler, an avid outdoorsman and philanthropist, and the founder of Butler Capital Corporation.

“I think Mr. Butler has a real interest in building a conservation ethic through children,” said Tom Abello, the Nature Conservancy’s senior policy adviser. “One thing he feels strongly about is if you get people in a canoe it will create a lifelong enthusiasm for the outdoors. We wholeheartedly support his efforts.”

Butler wants to foster a love of nature in children to help develop the next generation of environmentalists. So he has sought to develop large conservation areas and create environmental education programs in six regions of the world. Having spent a childhood exploring the Katahdin area, Butler selected it as one of the six, said Dhru Patel Amin, vice president of the Butler Conservation Fund in Great Neck, New York.

The other regions are in the Adirondacks, New York’s Catskill Mountains, along South Carolina’s Black River, and in Chile and Argentina.

“Maine is one of those places of personal interest for Mr. Butler and therefore has become a legacy area for us, particularly the Katahdin region,” Patel Amin said.

The welcome center will be built this summer, one year after the establishment of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Lucas St. Clair, executive director of Elliotsville Plantation Inc, which transfered 87,500 acres to the federal government in August to create the national monument, said the new outdoor education center sounds another loud call to people to explore the Katahdin wilderness.

“It’s very much in line with what we had hoped would happen in the region, with philanthropists like Gilbert Butler looking at making an investment,” St. Clair said. “This is a major step in the right direction. I couldn’t be happier.”

St. Clair said he’s impressed with Butler’s outdoor projects around the world, such as the educational programs in Patagonia National Park in Chile.

“They’re incredible, first-class investments in infrastructure,” St. Clair said. “It’s such a gift that another philanthropist is willing to make these types of additions to this region.”

Patel Amin said the Butler foundation would have established the Maine education center regardless of whether the national monument was created.

The Maine Outdoor Education Program was founded after Butler kayaked on the East Branch of the Penobscot River in 2011. It has funded outdoor education programs in the Katahdin region that have taught 3,000 school children a year to kayak, canoe and Nordic ski, seeking to highlight the connection between personal health and environmental stewardship.

The foundation has paid the cost of transportation, equipment and instruction for schools, a cost of more than $180,000 a year, said Matt Polstein, owner of the New England Outdoor Center who has run the Maine Outdoor Education Program offerings at his facility.

Gert Nesin, a Leonard Middle School teacher in Old Town who has attended Maine Outdoor Education Program classes with her students, said the new center will offer a permanent base for youth to visit and learn about one of Maine’s most beautiful wild areas.

“For me, it’s one of my favorite places in the world. But I think some of these kids don’t have the opportunity to go (to the Katahdin region),” Nesin said. “This is a high-poverty, increasingly poor area where people are just struggling to get along. Some of them never get there in their lives.”

Paul Sannicandro, owner of Moose In the Woods Guide Service in Millinocket, said the Maine Outdoor Education Program has had runaway success since it began helping youth learn outdoor skills in the Maine woods.

“I think with obesity issues statewide and nationally and the fact children are pretty much not getting time outdoors, this center is a great opportunity to get kids outside,” he said.

Once Maine Waterside Trails receives permitting from the Department of Environmental Protection, it will begin building this summer, Polstein said.

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph

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