When we got the Trust for Public Land’s announcement late last month about 10,000 newly protected acres of land along the Appalachian Trail in western Maine, we asked ourselves a really basic question: Isn’t the AT already uber protected? We called the trust’s Portland-based project manager, Betsy Cook, to get an answer, and ended up learning a lot more about her work as well the college job that hooked her on a career in land conservation. But, as she told us, land conservation geared toward something very specific. Read on to find out what (hint: not critters).

WHO’S THE BOSS? Cook has been working for the Trust for Public Land, founded in 1972, for about a year and a half. The trust is a national nonprofit based in San Francisco, with offices in 30 other locations around the country, including Portland. About four staffers of the 10 or so in the Portland office are focused primarily on Maine, including Cook. The mission of the nonprofit is to conserve land, for people. Which dovetails with Cook’s larger goals.

NOT FOR ME: She went to Cornell as an undergraduate, thinking she’d become a veterinarian. “I took a couple of classes and thought, ‘This is is not for me.’ ” Next she tried some ecology courses. “And I just got hooked. And then, it was summers working in the huts.” She was a summer staffer at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s huts in the White Mountains. She schlepped food and supplies up trails, cooked, cleaned and provided “quirky entertainment” for the guests. Like what? Naturalists walks and also, little plays. “We called them blanket-folding demonstrations.” She also basked in the national forest. “It is a place that we all share.” And it inspired her to find a career where she could spread the wealth of that kind of experience. “I wanted to create more places like the Whites.”

CHEF SPECIAL: Is there anything from her days of cooking in the huts that she still makes? “Moroccan lentil soup. And definitely a lot of the desserts. Like a vegan chocolate cake that was so delicious. It was like a sixth-grade science project, a vinegar-baking soda situation.” (We literally learned how to make this in seventh-grade home economics, where it went by the name Black Magic.)

DING DING: She got a graduate degree in environmental management from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. In particular, she was attracted to an academic track in community-based environmental management, and while studying it, she learned about a concept called a community forest. “Kind of a new version of a Town Forest. That piece of land that the community has complete say in how they want to use and manage it. I thought, ‘Ding ding ding. What an amazing idea. This is it, this is what I care about.’ ” Then she found out the concept came from the Trust for Public Land. More dinging. She learned about the opening in Portland while working for a land trust in North Carolina.

HOMECOMING: Was this a homecoming? Not exactly. She grew up in northern Connecticut, but her whole family has moved up to Maine. “I am the Angus King concept of a Mainer: I wasn’t born here but I got here as fast as I could.” And yes, she’s already climbed Katahdin. But the White Mountains haven’t lost their hold on her. Favorite peak in the White Mountains? “Lafayette.” Cook said this without hesitation. But then she didn’t stop. “The whole Franconia Ridge. Garfield. Mount Flume.” OK, so maybe there isn’t one single favorite? “It is just that when I think of home, that is what I think of.”

SISTER ACT: Her sister lives in Farmington, and they go for hikes in the mountains nearby. Taking in the view from peaks, she’s given her sister new perspective. Like, that it might not always look that way – forested and undeveloped. “She will look out and she’ll be like, ‘What do you mean? I thought this was all a national forest.’ ” It is not, Cook tells her. All that undeveloped land is one of Maine’s greatest assets, but much of it is private. “Because it is open (meaning people are allowed to use the trails and such), it is really easy to take that for granted.” It could end up posted (no trespassing) or even developed.

SPEAKING OF: Which brings us to that Appalachian Trail business. Is it in jeopardy of…being developed? It’s more like the surroundings, Cook explained. “The footpath is almost entirely protected,” she said. “Most of it is owned by the National Park Service.” Ninety-nine percent of it from Georgia to Maine is protected by federal or state ownership. But 1 percent of the path isn’t protected, and that is equal to about 150 properties. Additionally, the footpath itself is more narrow than you’d think: 1,000 feet. “Up here in Maine, the majority of the trail is actually surrounded by land that is not protected.”

DEMILITARIZED ZONE: The land the Trust for Public Land has conserved was owned by the U.S. Navy, and it is near to a remote wilderness facility near Rangeley. Cook says her understanding is that SEALS and the like are trained in survival and evasion techniques there. Thus they care about having a permanent buffer. “If they could see things on the horizon (like say, a wind tower), then they would be able to say, ‘This is where I want to go.’ ” Part of the land will be managed as a working forest, and key wildlife habitat will be protected, she said.

VIEW SHED: The land is in two pieces, roughly between Saddleback and Mount Abraham and just to the north of the trail. One, the Redington Forest parcel, is 9,580 acres, and the conservation easement on it will be held by the Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust and the U.S. Navy. The other is 1,155-acres called Lone Mountain; the conservation easement on it will be held by the Navy. “The second property, the AT goes right through it. The first property, the AT comes very, very close and is definitely part of the view shed.”

COMING SOON: Now that the project near Rangeley is all wrapped up, what comes next for Cook? “We have a project going on in Bethel, a community forest project, helping Bethel acquire 1,000 acres to make a town forest.” It’s land about two miles from the village center, and it had been threatened with being divided into 40-acre parcels and developed. “Which would be unfortunate. This is where people go to hunt and ski and snowmobile.” This is a triple bottom line project, meant to grow the economy (the town will make money off the – sustainable – woodlot management), protect the environment and unite the community. The Trust for Public Land has a contract to buy the land and is fundraising. The hope is to close in 2019. Once again, Trust for Public Land be trying to pull together funding from public sources. “Like we did with the Navy. I just submitted an application to the U.S. Forest Service a couple of hours ago.”

ON THE TRAIL AGAIN: But she’s also far from being done with the Appalachian Trail. “It is still a huge priority for the Trust for Public Land to continue to protect land for people along the full length of the AT.” In Maine, that includes land protection projects along or close to the AT; land near Bald Mountain Pond is one target. The goal is to get people out into wild places. And parks. She said she isn’t motivated by a desire to conserve land just for the sake of preserving it. “Or locking it up. What I really care about is conserving land for people. To use and share and come together to get a lot of joy out of.” And by the way? The Portland park where Cook was photographed for this article, Canco Woods, was protected from development in 2012 with the help of the Trust for Public Land.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

Correction: The story was updated at 11 a.m. Monday July 9, 2018, to correct the date of a planned land purchase in Bethel.

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