You may have read about Sears Island in a newspaper or guidebook. Or you may have heard about the 940-acre island at the head of Penobscot Bay from a friend or relative. Whatever the reason, you have decided you must see one of the largest undeveloped islands in Maine for yourself.
You’re motivated enough to find it on your own, so I won’t give directions. But I will offer some information that might help the beginner understand what is at stake in the woods and shores of Sears Island.
First, don’t expect a big brown sign with white lettering that says something like OWNED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION or NATURE PRESERVE. You’ll know you’ve made it to the island when you reach the end of a paved causeway and have to park near a concrete highway divider and a chain link fence with a DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION sign.
“Transportation?” you might be wondering, “Why would the Department of Transportation own an entire island with nothing on it in the middle of Penobscot Bay?”
What you might not know is that the concrete highway divider and the chain link fence and the DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION sign are what remain of a decades-long conflict over the fate of Sears Island. Fifty years ago there was no road, not even a causeway. To get to the island you would have had to wait until low tide exposed the narrow sandbar that connected the island to the mainland.
Step around the barrier and onto the island. The causeway road continues up a gradual hill straight ahead. Follow the road along the spine of the island, but bear left onto a gravel right-of-way. Look for a trail on your left.
Be prepared to get lost. There are no trail markers, no maps at the entrance. You have to discover Sears Island yourself. And when you do, after you slog through alder swamps and shuffle through fields of brittle dying ferns and stumble upon old stone walls, you still might not understand what all the fuss is about.
Follow the trail east to an overgrown clearing and stone foundation, remains of a farm that once held cows, pigs, and sheep, the last habitation of the island. Native Americans called the place Wassumkeag, after the bright, shining sand beach on the eastern side that was a landmark along canoe routes more than 3,000 years ago. Later, the island was named Brigadier’s Island. Several families lived on the island and farmed. David Sears bought the island in 1813 and turned it into a summer estate, which burned in 1893. Bangor & Aroostook Railroad bought the island in 1905, although a few people continued to farm. Legend has it that the island moonlighted as a landing point for smuggled liquor during prohibition.
The farm was finally abandoned in 1934, and the island began its gradual reversion to a natural state. Ferns hang over stone walls in lacy brown waterfalls. Fallen apples rot beneath uncut hay and deer trails crisscross overgrown carriage roads.
If you can find your way back to the right-of-way, follow it to the end, where an old electrical tower still stands. This is all that is left of plans to build a power plant on the island. In 1971, Maine Clean Fuels proposed a $150 million oil refinery, but the application was denied by the old Maine Environmental Improvement Commission, on the basis that estimated effects on employment in the area did not justify construction. Later that year, Central Maine Power announced plans to construct a nuclear power plant.
“Once we add industry to the island, there goes Penobscot Bay,” said Jim Verrill of Searsport in a 1974 interview, now in the collection of the Maine Folklife Center. “If we let them build this,” Verrill said, “years down the road we’ll ask, `Why do we let this happen? Why did we let them do this?’ and then its going to be too late.”
CMP gave up on the nuclear plant (after geologists discovered a fault line beneath the island) and in 1977 filed a petition to erect a 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant instead, at a cost of $795 million. DOT planned to build a port to accept coal shipments for the power plant and other containerized cargo. Both the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Office of Energy Resources petitioned to intervene. The Maine Public Utilities Commission found that CMP overestimated future energy consumption and denied the application.
Maine Department of Transportation went ahead with plans for a bulk cargo and container port, without the coal. Together with Eastport and Portland, Searsport was the center of a “three-port strategy” that would open Maine to the world. Wood chips, paper, and potatoes pouring forth from the northern hinterland would be linked via highway and rail to the shipping port at Sears Island. Jobs would be created for the economically depressed Waldo County, and Searsport would once again be a seafaring town.
If the state had known what was to unfold over the next 25 years, it probably would have taken its cargo port dreams elsewhere.
Follow the paved road as it curves west and downhill to the shore. Walk out on the rock pier that has been taken over by weeds. Stare out into the steely blue waves of the bay, over a raft of eiders bouncing on the swells, through the fog to the oil tanks of Mack Point. It’s like looking into a mirror from the past, for the image of Mack Point could well have been Sears Island, and you could be standing on the mainland, looking across Long Cove at the storage containers and docks on Sears Island. Instead you are here, looking there. Instead, the road and this half-built pier are as far as DOT got.
Voters approved transportation bond issues containing a total of $17.5 million for Sears Island in 1981 and 1983. DOT officially applied for permits to build a deep-water cargo terminal on the western shore of Sears Island in 1982. The Army Corps of Engineers found that the project would have no significant environmental impact and issued a permit. Construction began on the causeway, which permanently connected the island to the mainland, buried a stream and destroyed 13 acres of wetlands.
Seeing the destruction was Betsy Fawcett, a summer resident with a small house on Cottage Street in Searsport. Fawcett was a member of the Sierra Club, and she informed them what was going on out at Sears Island. The Sierra Club protested in court, and in October 1985 a federal judge halted construction and ordered a full environmental impact statement for the project.
The environmental impact statement found that there were “virtually no freshwater wetlands” on the island and in 1988 the Army Corps of Engineers issued a new permit. DOT contractors began dredging the pier site, only to be halted by legal action again in 1989. This time, the Sierra Club claimed that the permit for the causeway was illegal and demanded a more in-depth environmental assessment.
While the island was being more closely examined, DOT revealed that there were actually more than 200 acres of wetlands on the island. The EPA began a criminal investigation into whether the DOT and its consultants (Normandeau Associates of Bedford, N.H.) lied about the wetlands in the 1987 environmental impact statement. When the EPA questioned why they failed to find the extensive network of wetlands during five years of study on the island, the state blamed the oversight on evolving federal wetlands regulations. Normandeau was suspended for two months from working for the federal government. The DOT was required to fund wetland restoration on Sears Island and land preservation projects on the mainland.
When Angus King took over the governor’s office in 1995, he was determined to restart the stalled cargo port process and EPA officials agreed to make a final decision. The Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement came out later that year, which claimed that despite loss of wetlands and eelgrass, the project would provide a major economic benefit to the state. But many continued to disagree. Environmental organizations argued that the project was unneeded and based on erroneous or misleading and/or incorrect data. The DOT kept on, releasing a final environmental impact statement in the face of continued opposition from the Sierra Club and federal agencies including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the EPA. The Army Corps said that the terminal wharf and cargo handling area would inflict too much damage on the marine environment, and refused to approve the project unless the wharf was built on pilings instead of fill.
In February, 1996, after the state had spent 15-plus years and around $20 million, Gov. King pulled the plug, citing regulatory delays and changes to the plan requested by federal regulators had made the project too expensive. According to news reports at the time, King insisted that the outcome was “rigged” by federal regulators. The result, he said, represented the death of common sense.
Six months later, a still-bitter Department of Transportation pressed on with fundraising to buy Sears Island (which was still owned by the parent company of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad) for $4.5 million. There were rumors that the island would be conveyed to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for management and use as an environmental education facility.
Nothing materialized. The state did finally gain ownership of the island in 1998 (“for future transportation needs”), and vernal pools were constructed to mitigate for the wetland losses, but the island was left alone. For a little while, anyway.
In 2003, the words “Sears Island” and “liquefied natural gas” were uttered in the same sentence, ripping open old wounds, dredging up the bitter past, and waking up the community to the island’s perpetual vulnerability. But this time, Searsport residents were overwhelming in their rejection of industry and the illusion of employment. In May 2004, Searsport residents voted 10-1 against an LNG terminal anywhere in town and adopted a six-month moratorium on industrial development. Maybe the people of Searsport were tired of having state agencies, federal agencies and out-of-state interests deciding what was best for them and their island. The LNG threat was enough to scare the town and the state into addressing once and for all how to develop the island for economic benefit while preserving its ecological significance.
When Gov. King ended the cargo port project in 1996 he said, “The environmental issues raised in connection with this project have never passed the straight-face test. What you have basically is some folks outside of Maine who, for reasons that frankly I don’t understand, decided this was a burning symbolic environmental issue.”
On your way back to the causeway, walk along the shore, in some places sand, in others cobbles, bits of salt marsh here and there. Freshwater streams emerge from the tangled woods and tumble over cliffs, running freely to the bay. Zigzag through the woods, through spruces and birches and towering pines. Ask yourself, Why has Sears Island become a burning symbolic environmental issue?
Sears Island is 940 acres of old field, mixed forest, swamp, sand beach, rocky beach, cliff, stream, salt marsh, and bay. To the consultants who were hired in the 1990s to survey Sears Island for the proposed cargo port, the fact that Sears Island is typical of the Penobscot Bay region landscape meant that it was expendable and not worthy of preservation. Over and over the reports cited how common and typical the island is, being merely “characteristic” of the Penobscot Bay region: