Alan Stearns is the executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust, a nonprofit land trust based in Yarmouth but which also serves neighboring towns in the watershed of the Royal River. We spotted a notice about the group’s annual Running of the Royal canoe race on May 19 and called him up to hear more about the race and the land conservation it helps fund. Along the way, we learned about the trust’s pending acquisition along the river and picked up some paddling tips.

CAREER PATHS: Stearns is from Old Town but lives in Hallowell now. He left Maine for college (Brown University) but came back to his home state with the intent of making a career in community development. Before joining the conservation group, he was deputy director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. “I’ve got a lifelong passion for land conservation.” While he was with the Parks and Land department, he interacted with the land trust during an expansion of Bradbury Mountain State Park, as well as some other projects. “One of the successes of the Royal River Conservation Trust over its 30-year history is helping expand Bradbury five times.” An ever-popular hiking site, Bradbury was fairly small 30 years ago, he said, but “bit by bit we have added to it.”

STATE OF MIND: Stearns’ earlier gigs were as a policy advisor to former Gov. John Baldacci and at the state Department of Transportation, where he directed the environmental office and worked in policy and communications. “It is really only the last 12 years that I have been entirely focused on the outdoors. That is by choice. I see it as returning to my roots, or having the privilege to give back for the next generation.” Having grown up with Maine as his playground, he’s eager to make sure that there are always open spaces for recreation (and wildlife). “Too many of us take for granted what makes Maine special.”

NEW DIGS: Stearns said the trust hopes to close on a new acquisition in Yarmouth in May or June. The 24-acre parcel includes about a half-mile of river frontage that the trust had been eying for decades. “That project was very energizing.” What made it so desirable? “This particular parcel has very extensive beaver ponds and deer yards.” (A deer yard is an area where the trees – cedar and hemlock in this case – provide enough coverage to keep the snow from piling up too much in the winter.) “So the deer can take refuge in the conifer forest. That also means that the coyotes come down the river looking for the deer. So this stretch of river in Yarmouth is surprisingly full of critters.”

KEEPING IT WILD: Because of that, Stearns said the plan for the land is slightly different from other conservation land in the area. “The vision for this parcel is that it be even more wild and more focused on habitat preservation.” There will be walking trails, but the dominant trails will likely be the ones used by the deer, beaver and coyotes.

RIVER RUN: How much time does Stearns get to spend on the river? “I am a big paddler.” Kayak or canoe? “Canoe.” Doesn’t he get sucked into the behind-a-desk vortex? “Those of us on staff are fully invested in getting ourselves out.” Where precisely? A favorite spot is the stretch of the river between North Yarmouth and the Yarmouth History Center. “It is dead flat. You can paddle upriver as far as you want to go, a full 7 miles before you hit a current, with no portage.”

COMPETITIVE CANOEING: Sounds like a good place to have a race, which it so happens, the land trust recently started sponsoring as a fundraiser. The trust’s third annual Run of the Royal is on May 19 this year. (Pro tip: price break if you register your team by April 20.) The biggest fundraiser that the Royal River Conservation Trust sponsors, the race is modeled on Boston’s Head of the Charles, and includes prizes, burgers and some healthy competition from L.L Bean. “L.L. Bean will have three teams. They have some pretty serious paddlers.” Won’t it be black fly season? Maybe, but also canoe racing season. “The rivers are flowing strong in the spring, and it is that season between the ski slips and the summer. That is when paddling comes alive in Maine.”

FOES IN HIGH PLACES: It’s no secret that Gov. Paul LePage is not a fan of land trusts. (He thinks they should pay property taxes, and even used time in his last State of the Union address to bash them. Land trusts say he uses data in a misleading way.) Does that make this a hard time to work in conservation? “Our strength is that we have a rock-solid relationship with the municipalities we work with,” Stearns said. Twelve towns have waterways that drain toward the Royal River; the Royal River Conservation Trust works with all of them. “So we can to a certain extent move on when the governor says something polarizing because we know that politically, every single Board of Selectmen and town council is rallying behind us. There is no doubt in my mind that the people of Greater Portland want more open space. Augusta has been a distraction but it hasn’t slowed us down.”

 

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