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Branch Lake Public Forest: A Public Good and a Great Afternoon

August 23, 2023

Conservation can often be a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, it encourages the smart and healthy utilization of natural resources. (This differentiates it from preservation, which sees the total or near-total exclusion of human influence.) On the other hand, conservation requires management and oversight – stewardship – to ensure that this balance between land use and environmental health remains steady. And I’m going to discuss a perfect example of the latter. 

My destination for this week’s post was the Branch Lake Public Forest, a collaborative project in which the City of Ellsworth and Frenchman Bay Conservancy worked together to conserve large parcels of land along the eponymous lake. The preserve offers several miles of trails and water access, and with stunning views of the lake and beautiful tracts of woodland, it’s hard to imagine such an oasis exists so near to the middle of our county’s largest city. Yet it represents a growing trend of municipalities seeking to enshrine access to nature as a public right. So strap on your hiking boots, shoulder that canoe, and prepare for a whole lot of altruism–it’s time to head to Branch Lake.

A Brief Branch History

Like much of the land in eastern Maine, there is little record of the Branch Lake region’s early history. The Wabanaki likely utilized the area for hunting and fishing, as the nearby Union River was an important thoroughfare and hosted semi-permanent settlements along its bank. Then came Euro-American colonization and the first white landowner: William Charles Jarvis. A man of many jobs–attorney, director of a state penitentiary, author, and member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, among others–he appears to have been equally ambitious and unsuccessful. Jarvis acquired quite a fair bit of land in his life, including 15,000 acres surrounding Branch Lake. An 1822 Maine Planbook records these 15,000 acres as belonging to Jarvis as well as the states of Maine and Massachusetts, but by the middle of the 1820s, it had been parcelled up and sold off. In the year 1836 Jarvis would take his own life, spurred by the alleged defrauding of some property; whether this Branch Pond land was a component of this is unknown. 

Fromhere the land of the Public Forest passed between a variety of owners, ultimately ending up in the hands of the Fenn family. Cherished as a summer retreat, the family developed a deep bond with the woods and lake. It was through their desire to see the land protected that Ellsworth, FBC, and the Forest Society of Maine were able to make the purchase. The 447 acres that make up the Public Forest were acquired by the city while their easement rights were purchased by Frenchman Bay Conservancy. 

Perusing the Public Forest

Branch Lake Public Forest is currently host to three main trails and a tote road. From Route 1A, ten minutes north of downtown Ellsworth, one takes a gravel road into some dense forest before reaching a gate and parking area. This gate is the start of the tote road, and it functions as the main artery of the Public Forest. The first branch (get it–branch? Like Branch Lake? …*sigh*) is on the left, and is known as the Marsh Trail. This goes along some well-watered woodland, before ending at the boundary between the woods and a large marshy meadow; there are some plans to expand on this, but as of now it is a small out-and-back. 

Sprouting yellow staghorn fungus found along the Brookside Trail.

The next trail, also located on the left side of the tote road, is the Pine Trail/Lake Loop. This branches off into some lovely conifer forest, crossing over the road a little further along and continuing down to the lakefront. This Lake Loop is truly spectacular–a number of small offshoots lead to the water, with amazing views of the woods, waters and distant hills. There are some large glacial erratics half-submerged in the lake here, and it gives everything a very wild and rugged feel.

The final trail is the Brookside Trail. By doubling back from the Lake Loop you will reach the tote road again; following this for a short while will reveal the slightly overgrown trailhead (it will be on your left if you’re coming from the lake and on your right if coming from the parking area). This follows the contours of a small brook through some damp mixed woodlands, before passing a picnic table/lake overlook and then doubling back on itself. The moist soil here is prime for fungi, and they abound in number; the highlight of my visit was a number of sprouting yellow staghorns. Take the path back to the tote road, and then it’s a simple left back towards the parking lot. 

The Nature of Nature

But wait, there’s more. 

Besides being a lovely place for an afternoon stroll, Branch Lake serves an important purpose: it provides drinking water for the city of Ellsworth. 

I’ll avoid wading too deep into political philosophy, but one of the key purposes of government is to protect and encourage the wellbeing of its people. Municipal duties like water, electrical grids, sewage, garbage disposal–these are basic services that are necessary to our daily lives. But an increasingly popular addition to this list has been “access to a healthy environment”. Certain states like my native Pennsylvania have a right to clean air and water written in their constitution, and many more municipalities have adopted similar stances. 

In cases like Branch Lake, monitoring and ensuring the cleanliness of our water can be difficult. While the lake itself is public trust (per Maine’s Great Pond Law), and sees a level of further protection due to its municipal purpose, much of the waterfront is privately owned. With the city protecting parts of the shore and adjacent lands, it ensures that threats like dumping and polluting are minimized, and provides critical water filtration to maintain the lake’s high water quality. The water access also provides a potential outlet for monitoring the southern half of the lake. And above all else, it’s an important reminder that “nature” and “everyday life” are deeply connected; you may care a bit more about the lake’s welfare if you can walk its shores and breathe in its fresh air. 

A Healthy Green Mind

In addition to concerns regarding the lake’s health, it’s also becoming increasingly clear that access to nature can have an impact on mental health. Starting with the Green Belt movement in the United Kingdom, more and more cities across the globe have worked to provide some green amongst the urban grey. Access to nature can encourage exercise, reflection and a feeling of natural connectedness–unimpactful for some, but life-changing for others. By cementing this right of access on the municipal level, and essentially putting large areas of land in the public trust, this can be avoided. And, with government being an extension of, and influenced by, the voice of its people, projects like the Branch Lake Public Forest truly represent a communal and public good.

A Personal Postscript

 I’ve talked your ear off about concepts and theory, but I want to wrap things up with an experience a little more individual. I’ve hiked dozens and dozens of trails in eastern Hancock, from mountaintops to forests to dense bogs, and every one has been beautiful. But it’s only on rare occasions do I really stop and think “Wow.” Branch Lake was one of those places. As I stood on the lakefront, gazing out at submerged erratics and distant mountains, I could feel something hit me. It was one of those perfect moments in nature; it was something special.

If you do make your way out to Branch Lake, keep all of this in mind. Everybody deserves the right to a clean and healthy life, and a right to enjoy our beautiful world. When we support projects like this, we are really supporting these rights for today and for our future. And, in an era marked by chaos and unrest, it’s a remarkably comforting thought.

Written by Michael Monaco-Vavrik, FBC’s 2023 Outreach and Education Intern. This blog is a part of his summer series, where he’ll be visiting many of FBC’s preserves and sharing his casual first-hand experiences. These may cover topics ranging from flora to fauna to history to general thoughts. By writing these pieces, he is hoping to inspire readers to go out and experience these preserves themselves. Is there a preserve you’d like him to cover? Send him a note at Michael@FrenchmanBay.org.