2. NATURAL RESOURCES
Geographically, Westport is a small island community, consisting of 8.73 square miles, making it the third smallest municipality in Lincoln County (Boothbay Harbor and Southport are smaller). Based on a year 2000 population of 745 people, there were 85 people per square mile (in 1980, there were 48 people per square mile). Westport Island, often referred to as a rock island, is about 11 miles by about one and a half to two miles at its widest. The Town is situated in the lower Sheepscot River, about three miles downstream from Wiscasset. It is bounded by the Sheepscot River, the Back River, and the Sasanoa River.
For most of its history, Westport has been a largely undiscovered farming and rural-residential community naturally barred to access by its island nature. For many years, access to the island was only by boat. As family farming became uneconomical and farming abandoned, the natural island seclusion increasingly attracted residential and seasonal housing. Commercial development has been virtually non-existent owing to the distance from major highways and the island’s limited water supply. Over a period of many years, the perimeter shoreline of the island has been intensively developed, while significant tracts in the center of the island have remained undeveloped.
In considering the future, the natural constraints imposed by the island’s geography, and the values of her citizens must guide Westport. Natural constraints include available water supply and the need to manage septic needs within the limitations of the thin soils and granite foundation of the island. The values of the citizens are coincident with the rich natural, scenic and environmental assets of the island which combine to create the natural, rustic, rural character and seclusion that citizens highly value.
Westport Island is part of a Midcoast system of salt marshes, tidal estuaries as well as islands in estuaries that create hugely productive nurseries for lobsters, hermit crabs, green crabs, and other shellfish, finfish and harbor seals. Estuaries are ecological zones occupying the fluctuating boundaries between the salt water of the ocean and the fresh water of the rivers. It is therefore no surprise to find flounder, striped bass, shad, sculpin, sturgeon, alewife, rare Atlantic salmon, herring and smelt which are still in evidence in the Kennebec, Back River and Sheepscot River region. Short nosed Sturgeon (acipenser brevirostrum), a species currently listed as federally endangered, is thought to breed in these estuaries according to studies done by the Nature Conservancy of Maine. The varied aquatic plants: sea kelp, brownish-green rock weed and salt water grasses along mud flats definitely contribute to rich symbiotic feeding grounds for breeding fish. Today, scientists recognize healthy salt marshes as one of the most productive systems for breeding birds and fish in the world. In the U. S. alone, more than two thirds of fish harvested commercially find shelter, food and a habitat to breed during their varying stages of life in these vital salt marshes. Coastal Maine residents care about the salt marshes a great deal because of the culture, history, and priceless life-ecosystems which are integrally dependent, that vitally impact on a continuing basis our economic survival and way of living.
The coastal shore lands of Westport comprise imposing rocky ledges rich in granite, covered with gnarled pitch pine and red pine and carpeted with crow berry (Corema conradii), alongside gray-green varieties of lichens as well as mosses in abundance. The Midcoast region is thought to have well over 300 different species of plants, some of which are rare and protected. Many of these plants may be located in Westport including Lupines, goldenrod, fringed polygata, white ladyslippers (Cypripedium acaule), snowy ladyslippers (Cypripedium reginae), Eastern Prairie fringed orchid, Hellaborine Orchid (Epipactis helleborine), furbish lousewort, red moccasin flower, rose pogonia, and heather in several varieties. Fragrant wild lilies and daylillies crouch in abundance alongside the older roadways along with bayberry, mature rhododendrons and creeping yews. In the spring, Canada Mayflowers and moccasin flowers bloom throughout the woods along with four varying types of ladyslippers, various wild orchids, along with an occasional small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeolides). These areas are now considered threatened throughout their range as they are found only along the North Atlantic Coast.
Although Westport is an island, there is no place that can be truly called a harbor that can provide shelter for more than a limited number of boats and that has sufficient depth for secure mooring on a 24-hour basis.
The Ferry Landing is a boat launching area on Westport with some space for parking cars and trailers. Also easily accessible to Westport residents are several access points in Wiscasset including two public ramps at the Town dock, and another adjacent to Maine Yankee on the Back River, opposite Westport’s Ferry Landing.
There are tidal mud flats at various locations around Westport which yield marine worms and some shellfish, but not of commercial quantity. The only flats which are open are Squam Creek (except during periods of high runoff), Fowle Cove and Greenleaf Cove. The rest of the island is closed because of chlorinated overboard discharge systems.
Geologically, Westport is made up of Bedrock, covered for the most part with thin, relatively poor soils. According to the Soil Survey of Knox and Lincoln Counties (Soil Conservation Service), the general landscape of Westport was shaped by events that occurred during the Pleistocene epoch, which began about two million years ago. There were at least four periods of glaciation during which huge ice sheets covered all of Lincoln County. The last major glaciation spread southeast and reached its maximum extent on the continental shelf by about 18,000 years ago. As it moved, the glacier ground up rocks beneath it and deposited this newly eroded material under the ice as a compact layer of glacial till, a dense mixture of ground rocks ranging in size from clay size particles to large boulders. The soils of Westport developed in this dense glacial till. The sheer weight of the ice sheet thousands of feet thick depressed the land surface, while the large quantities of water tied up in the ice lowered the surface of the sea by as much as 300 to 350 feet.
As the ice melted and its weight was removed, the land began to rebound and emerge from the sea. This emergence lasted from about 13,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago when sea level was about 180 feet below the present level. Since that time, a slow submergence of the land has brought the sea up to its present level.
The soils of Westport belong to the Lyman-Tunbridge-rock outcrop soil association. This soil association consists of gently sloping to very steep exposures of bedrock; and shallow and moderately deep, gently sloping to steep, somewhat excessively drained and well drained soils, formed in glacial till. Lyman-Tunbridge-rock outcrop soils are found mainly on side slopes of higher elevation coastal areas.
The rock outcrop consists mainly of exposures of hard, unweathered bedrock. Lyman soils are shallow, gently sloping to steep, and somewhat excessively drained. The surface layer and the subsoil are fine sandy loam. Below that, there is hard, unweathered bedrock. Tunbridge soils are moderately deep, gently sloping to steep, and well drained. The surface layer and the subsoil are fine sandy loam and gravelly fine sandy loam. The substratum is gravelly fine sandy loam. Below that, there is hard, unweathered bedrock.
Both Lyman and Tunbridge soils endemic to Westport have severe limitations for septic tank absorption fields because of shallow depth to bedrock.
The hydrological studies of the Maine Coast conducted by the Maine Geological Survey show that the sources of fresh water for Westport, and coastal communities with similar geographic and geological structure, are not from off-island aquifers or origins. Rather, Westport’s fresh water is derived entirely from the island’s rainfall. Moreover, Westport’s geography is dome-shaped. The preponderance of rainwater runs down the mostly rock surface into the Sheepscot River surrounding Westport. The remaining rainwater percolates down into bedrock via naturally occurring cracks and fissures. Westport’s fresh water supply is contained in fractures within the underlying bedrock. These fractures generally trend north-south, along the length of the island. Water constantly moves through the bedrock fractures as it flows downhill to the ocean or a stream. In general, the quantity of water available appears to be adequate for the island’s foreseeable needs, although heavy demand during dry summer periods has led to some wells going dry as well as cases of salt water intrusion in some wells close to the coast. Salt water intrusion occurs where pumping fresh water out of the ground allows salt water from the ocean to flow in to take its place. Without a reservoir, or other off-island source of fresh water, Westport development and quality of life is constrained by the limits of rainwater and its seasonal ebb and flow.
While groundwater quantity may not be an immediate issue, at least in most areas, there is the issue that the bedrock water supply is vulnerable to contamination. Quantities of pollutants as small as a few gallons can travel long distances down and along bedrock fractures, and still remain concentrated enough to contaminate large quantities of groundwater. Potential contaminants include septic tank seepage, road salt, herbicides and pesticides, as well as petroleum products, MBTEs and solvents, to name a few. Once groundwater is contaminated, it is very difficult or impossible to clean up in as much as it is contained deep in the bedrock. Moreover, due to the aforementioned shallow soil conditions over bedrock in most areas of Westport, it is highly unlikely that Westport would be able to address groundwater contamination with a public water system, whether located on the island or extended to the island from a nearby community. The island’s citizens will have to continue to depend on private wells and individual septic systems, with all the associated vulnerabilities.
In the summer of 2001, Westport hired the firm Stratex to undertake an aquifer and soil carrying capacity study of the island. The study included an evaluation of the island’s system of bedrock faults, a review of a Town well survey questionnaire, and an examination of well data on file with the Maine Geological Survey. Some of the major recommendations of the study (see appendix for more detail) include:
1. Minimize ground water recharge reductions and enhance recharge where possible (lot sizes over 2.5 acres produce negligible loss of recharge);
2. Prevent degradation of ground water quality by:
· A 200 foot setback between wells and the shoreline to prevent salt water intrusion;
· A 200 foot setback between septic systems and downgradient (downhill) wells to protect against viral contamination;
3. Limit land use activities in areas of bedrock aquifer protection zones (no chemical or petroleum storage); and
4. Utilize recommended lot sizes based on soil recharge capability to minimize nitrate-nitrogen contamination from residual wastewater (the minimum single family lot densities recommended to protect water quality ranged from one acre for sand and gravel soils, to five acres for glaciomarine clay-silt soils).
To ensure protection of the island’s groundwater resources in accordance with the recommendations of the study, it would be prudent to require that applicants for large developments including commercial projects be required to submit the result of hydrogeologic studies to demonstrate that these projects will not make unreasonable demands on groundwater or adversely impact existing users. These studies should also document that there will be adequate provision for the disposal of subsurface sewage disposal and hazardous materials used on or generated by these projects. It will also be important to continue rigorous enforcement of the State plumbing code, and to encourage state-of-the-art septic system technology, as well as regular pumping of septic systems. Finally, it would be prudent to implement the recommendations of the study.
There are no rivers or great ponds on Westport Island, although there are several small creeks, a number of intermittent streams that drain wetlands and several small ponds including Meadow Pond (off Post Office Road) and Beaver (Ice) Pond off East Shore Road/Route 144.
Wetlands are considered to be those areas where water is the primary factor controlling the plant and animal life found there. Wetlands play a significant role in the overall balance of the environment. They serve as both seasonal and year-round habitat for a large number of species, and they act as natural sponges, absorbing large quantities of run-off for later release.
Westport is one of the towns included in the publication “Significant Fish and Wildlife Resources of Mid-Coastal Maine,” (1989), produced by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. This document is referred to in this section and following sections as the 1989 IFW report.
The IFW report identifies eight significant wetland areas in Westport. Other, smaller wetland areas are identified on the National Wetlands Inventory. The eight wetlands identified in the 1989 IFW report are:
1. Half mile west of Tarbox Cove;
2. Anderson Bog
3. Doggett Road
4. Northeast of Knight Cemetery
5. Heal Pond
6. Squam Creek
7. East of Tarbox Cemetery
8. South of McCarty Cove
One of the wetlands, Anderson Bog (also called Meadow Pond), is classified as “high” value. Four are classified as “moderate” value (Half mile west of Tarbox Cove, Doggett Road, Northeast of Knight Cemetery, and Squam Creek), and two are classified as “low” value (East of Tarbox Cemetery and South of McCarty Cove).
Four of the identified wetlands are afforded protection under Westport’s Shoreland Zoning Ordinance and are clasified as pond districts. These are: Squam Creek Marsh (Squam Creek), Heal’s Upper Mill (Heal Pond), Meadow Pond (Anderson Bog) and Beaver Pond (connects to the wetland referred to as Half Mile west of Tarbox Cove).
There are also numerous vernal pools that exist during the warm months. Essentially, vernal pools may be temporary, yet some in this area are permanent bodies of water. These pools support breeding habitat for a rich variety of amphibians and invertebrates, (except fish), due to the fact that the vernal pool will almost always dry up in summer. These vernal pools provide an essential breeding, fish-free habitat for such things as the commonly named peeper, blue frogs, rare spotted salamanders of several colors and varieties including the protected Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus), blandings turtles, and spotted turtles. They also provide a safe feeding and watering area for birds and mammals. Cranberry bogs and blue iris, as well as other wetland plants, are integrally inclusive to the areas where vernal pools exist.
Westport Island is about 95% forested. The forests of Westport support a mix of hardwood/deciduous formations inclusive of significant areas of old growth woodlands containing combinations of eastern hemlock, cedar, red spruce, white pine, black pine, redwood, tamarack laced with tree lichens, and a few American elms. The forested areas provide important values at the local level including wildlife habitat and water quality improvement. Water quality is an important consideration due to the shallow soil over sand/clay and granite bedrock. There is salt intrusion into some shoreline-area residents’ wells in summer; and wells that are dug are highly vulnerable to any hint of man-made pollution. The more forested areas we maintain, and the less human infringement we deal with, the better the chances of insuring pure water for our residents.
More than 70 species of birds nest along the greater Midcoast area, frequently fishing offshore. Many of these can be found in Westport. The wide mud flats provide important feeding grounds year-round for local and migratory birds. Nearly 275 species of birds have been spotted in the Midcoast area. Spring warblers, black ducks, wintering sea ducks, cormorants, piping plovers, roseate terns, snowy egrets, Canada geese, loons, bufflehead ducks, kingfishers, puffins, barred owls, great horned owls, snowy owls, sawhet owls, American Peregrine Falcons, American Kestrels, and terns can be spotted by birders at certain times throughout the year. For about eight years now the younger eagles have been wintering over in this area instead of migrating south during the coldest months, so they have been spotted regularly by residents year round on Westport Island.
Deer, porcupine, red foxes, Virginia flying squirrels, weasels, and otter can be seen on a fairly regular basis. Less frequently, moose, beavers, coyotes, and an occasional black bear can be sighted. Wild roses, choke cherries, blackberries, cranberries, huckleberries, blueberries and raspberries may be found in all areas of open space on Westport island, providing plenty of food for the animals that winter here.
The 1989 IFW report identifies a number of significant wildlife areas on Westport as described in the paragraphs below. The description of these areas is taken from a 1990 IFW publication “Conservation of Land Fisheries and Wildlife Habitat” (the 1990 IFW report).
1. Coastal Wildlife Concentration areas. Coastal wildlife concentration areas include a variety of important wildlife habitats. These areas are special because of the abundance and diversity of wildlife they support, and because of their importance to rare species. Many different kinds of birds commonly use these habitats during a part or all of their life cycles. Waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, seabirds, osprey, loons, bald eagles and seals are just some of the wildlife depending on Maine’s coastline for feeding, resting, wintering, breeding, and migration habitat. There are eight coastal wildlife concentration areas including:
Upper Mark Island
One of these, Brookings/Hockomock Bays, is classified Class A, meaning that it is “significant on a national or state level.” The other seven are classified as Class C, meaning that they are “signifcant on the local level.” These areas are afforded protection under Westport’s Shoreland Zoning Ordinance.
2. Deer Yards
Wintering has long been considered a “bottleneck” for survival of white-tailed deer in the northeast. During winter, deer in northern climates often subsist on limited quantities of low quality foods, while simultaneously coping with low temperatures, chilling winds, and high energy requirements to stay warm. In Maine, studies indicate that mortality of deer can exceed 35% during severe winters. The primary behavioral mechanism for deer to conserve energy during winter is to move to traditional wintering areas or “yards.” These wintering areas provide deer with shelter from radiant heat loss as well as improved mobility in snow. The conifer canopy in a deer yard moderates the effects of winter by maintaining warmer than average temperatures and greatly reducing wind velocity. The conifer cover also intercepts much of the snowfall and ground accumulations become firmly packed. This makes traveling much easier for deer and decreases their energy demands. IFW has identified three deer wintering areas in Westport:
a. An area from Tarbox Cove to Route 144 bordered by East Shore Road;
b. An area west of Rum Cove between Greenleaf Road and Fowles Point Road in the center of the island; and
c. An area from Heal Cove to Squam Creek.
The Heal Cove area is of unknown value. The other two areas are classified as “moderate value.” It should be noted that these deer yards were identified a number of years ago and may no longer be used by deer. The inventory of deer yards has not been reviewed or updated.
3. Seal Haul Outs
Maine has the largest population of harbor seals on the Atlantic Coast, and supports the only significant breeding population in the Eastern United States. Gray Seals, which are much larger than harbor seals, are uncommon but regular visitors to Maine and usually are found around remote offshore ledges and islands. Seal haul-outs are ledges, beaches and coastal islands traditionally used by seals for pupping and resting. These sites are necessary for survival of both adults and young. Whelping or “pupping” sites are used from year to year by the same breeding females, many of which were probably born on these ledges. Direct access to high quality feeding areas, and lack of human disturbance, are important characteristics of seal haul-outs. Seal haul-outs in Westport include those located at Upper Mark Island, Greenleaf Cove and Seal Rocks off Clough Point. Seals have been resting on the ice along Squam Creek and Heal Cove during the coldest time of spring although in warmer months they prefer the rocks offshore for sunning.
4. Seabird Nesting Islands
There are between three and four thousand islands and exposed ledges along the Maine coast. More than three hundred and fifty of these are traditional nesting islands used by twenty species of seabirds. Many of these birds are at the northern or southern limit of their range. For several species (common eider, black guillemot, Atlantic puffin, razorbill auk, great cormorant, Leach’s storm-Petrel), Maine is the only state in the contiguous 48 states with significant breeding populations. Nesting seabirds are extremely vulnerable to the effects of development and human disturbance during the nesting season. Disrupting the birds at this time can result in excessive mortality of chicks and eggs from predation or exposure.
In addition to its role as a seal haul-out, Upper Mark Island is the Town’s only seabird nesting island.
5. Waterfowl and Wading Bird Habitat
Waterfowl and wading birds are a diverse group of species which make significant but not exclusive use of inland and coastal wetlands. Waterfowl are defined in Maine statute as species of the family Anatidae, which include ducks and geese but not grebes and loons. Wading birds include bitterns, herons, egrets, ibis, rails, coots and moorhens.
Waterfowl and wading bird habitat areas in Westport include the following:
a. South of Colby Cove; bounded by Route 144, Doggett Road and Haskell Road (WWH 031659);
b. South of Doggett Road, north of Colby Road (WWH 031666);
c. South of Sortwell Road, north of Hopkins Road, east of 144 (WWH 031667);
d. South of Hopkins Road; east of 144 (WWH 031664);
e. Squam Creek, south of West Shore Road, west of 144 (WWH 031663);
f. South of Post Office Road, west of 144 (WWH 031660);
g. Within East Shore Road east of 144 (WWH 031661).
At the confluence of the Back River and the Sheepscot Rivers, the area of Clough Point Nature Preserve hosts bald eagles and osprey every year. In 1972, the Clough Point Nature Preserve was established under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the State of Maine Bureau of Parks and Recreation, and the Town of Westport. In 1998, the Soules of Westport donated additional acreage to this preserve to enhance the area for protected species. Clough Point is just one preserve among numerous, far larger conservation areas, easements and land trusts which are inclusive of a vast estuarine ecosystem rich in salt marshes and wetlands, providing critical habitat for birds of prey, that comprise the Kennebec River, Back River and Sheepscot River area.
There are five places in Westport where views from the road to the water, waterfront, coves, or ponds are particularly scenic. These places are located at the Westport Bridge, the Squam Creek Dike Bridge, the Heal Cove-Heal Pond Dike Bridge, the Long Cove Bridge, and the East Shore Road overlook opposite Hodgdon Ledge.
There are also eight areas along the roads of Westport where there are concentrations of particularly mature trees. These areas include the North End Road, three stretches along Route 144, most of the West Shore Road, the lower stretch of the East Shore Road and Fowles Point Road.
In addition to the areas mentioned above, there are stretches along all of Westport’s secondary roads (which are mainly gravel roads) which are still sparsely populated. Their lack of development adds to the rural charm and atmosphere of the Town. These roads include the Greenleaf Cove Road, the Sortwell Road and the Old Post Office Road.