If you are familiar with Sears Island, but haven’t been there in a while, you will notice some subtle changes next time you visit. The entrance gate looks a bit cleaner; the concrete barriers and chain-link fence are still there, but so is a port-a-potty, a dog waste baggie dispenser and several trash barrels. There is a trail map of the island, and a small wooden box containing folded brochures for the Friends of Sears Island.

As you pass through the fence and head left to skirt the eastern shore, instead of sliding down the sand of an eroded footpath, you will find that you can get from the paved road to the beach via a new wooden staircase.  As you walk along the beach and decide to stroll inland, your path will be directed by a hand-stenciled wooden sign marking the start of the Homestead Trail.

If you’ve never been to Sears Island, these things will be unremarkable. You might not realize that these changes—trash cans, stairs, marked trails—are signs of life on this undeveloped 941-acre island at the head of Penobscot Bay.

In the last year, since two-thirds of the state-owned island was placed under a conservation easement after a lengthy planning process, the Friends of Sears Island have been able to move forward with stewardship activities.

As founding members of the Friends of Sears Island, Bob and Marietta Ramsdell have been working hard to maintain and restore trails, and to educate visitors about the island’s sensitive habitats. Bob made the trail signs, and Marietta created the brochures. Other members of the Friends group helped build the staircase.

Bob Ramsdell also represents Searsport on the Sears Island Advisory Group, which oversees activities on the island. The advisory group was created at the end of the process that resulted in the agreement that conserved part of the island and left the other part in the hands of the Department of Transportation.

“They’re doing a good job and they’re doing all the right things, bringing in experts to restore trails and inventory natural resources, ” said Doug McMullin, regional steward for Maine Coast Heritage Trust, holder of the conservation easement on Sears Island.

Because the Trust only holds the easement, and does not own the land outright, they don’t take an active management role, said McMullin. Because of this, McMullin is glad of the help provided by the Friends of Sears Island, noting that the care and management of the property will be a significant effort because Sears Island is so large and so accessible to the public, due to its proximity to Route 1.

The Ramsdells acknowledge a tension between advertising the island as a destination and managing the reality of more frequent visitors. Trail signs and maps have encouraged some visitors to leave the paved road and explore the interior of the island. “Use has increased, and increased year-round”¦but a person can still be alone on the island,” said Marietta, recalling a magical snowshoe trek this past January.

Others, however, are a bit upset about the changes. “I sympathize with them,” said Bob Ramsdell, “but people are coming north, there’s no doubt about it, they are coming here.” Marietta shares some of these concerns. “It’s just going to be beaten to death if we don’t do something,” she said. Much of the Ramsdells’ work on Sears Island is based on their experience with the Maine Island Trail, which has evolved into a more formalized, publicized, and managed recreational trail system as a result of heavy use.

The Homestead Trail climbs gradually from the beach through the woods to an old stone foundation in a clearing. “The old farm homestead is where it was agreed that some kind of education center could be built,” said Bob, pointing out orange flagging that marks the easement boundary. The education center is a distant and long-term vision.

For now, the Friends are hoping that a grant proposal comes through so the Conservation Corps can come out this summer and build footbridges over boggy areas and waterbars to prevent trails from washing out. They are focusing on restoring and maintaining existing trails, but hope to build new ones, including trails accessible to those with disabilities. “We just want to make the experience a little safer and a more enjoyable, with a few enhancements,” said Marietta. The Friends have access to the western side of the island, most of which is retained by DOT, said Marietta, “but we’re not anxious to put too much time into that area.”

Catherine Schmitt is communications coordinator for Maine Sea Grant and co-writes the “Fathoming” feature for The Working Waterfront.