The Origins and History of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust
Using Government to Control Private Property
Feb 10, 2010 updated 08/21/22, 02/09/23
- Origins of the Trust: Acquisition for Acadia National Park
- Exploiting Condemnation
- Expansion Beyond Acadia
- Grabbing the Downeast Coast: National Natural Landmark Scandal
- Target: Washington County
The Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) is one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful land trusts in Maine. Founded with Rockefeller money and influence in a “partnershp” with the National Park Service as a Federal acquisition arm of Acadia National Park in 1970, the Trust is a tax-exempt, highly political non-profit that collaborates with State and Federal government agencies for land use prohibitions and acquisition throughout Maine, espcially along the coastal regions.
The Trust promotes itself as “voluntary” but targets private land for government acquisition, quietly exercises undue influence over government policy, lobbies for eminent domain power and Federal areas trapping inholders, and buys from owners under duress from government threat of condemnation. It uses its financial and political connections and tax exempt status to preserve land around anti–development wealthy owners in southern and mid-coast Maine, while in rural Washington County downeast it has arrogantly targeted entire large regions of private property it wants controlled by government, branding the property it wants as a “threat” to what it calls its “whole place” “landscape level conservation”.
The Trust funds and directs satellite trusts and local fronts concentrating on more limited regions, promoted as in the interests of local people, while exploiting financial connections with wealthy out of state foundations set up to cause and accelerate government acquisition.
Origins of the Trust as an Acquisition Arm of Acadia National Park
MCHT was incorporated as a non-profit private acquisition arm of Acadia National Park in 1970. It was organized and initially run by a senior Acadia National Park official who was hired and funded by the Rockefellers to transfer land or controlling interests in land to Acadia. Its role was as an intermediary to circumvent the Acadia National Park 1929 law allowing park acquisition only by donation or exchange, but anywhere in Hancock County and Knox County islands. As a wealthy private organization backed by Rockefeller, Cabot and other money, the Trust could finance and acquire land without limit and transfer it to the government to permanently remove it from private ownership.
The Trust also immediately began lobbying for expanded park acquisition authority using eminent domain, which they later got in 1982 and 1986.
A lauditory April, 1991 Downeast Magazine cover story revealed that in the late 1960s Peggy Rockefeller and Tom Cabot wanted to stop other people from living along the shore: Peggy and her husband, banker David Rockefeller, who in addition to their Seal Harbor mansion in Mt. Desert had a summer estate on a small offshore island, noticed that new homes they hadn't seen before on the shore were becoming visible from their yacht. They didn't like it.
Upon its founding MCHT immediately assumed its role of targeting and collaborating in acquisitions planned for the National Park Service. By 1972 a local newspaper adulatory report from Seal Harbor revealed the contempt that Peggy Rockefeller and her wealthy cohorts had for other peoples' property ownership and how the National Park Service was being used for land control:Rockefeller “and other wealthy outsiders who spend their summers along the cool, rugged coast have setup a trust that now shelters 27 sea-swept islands from realtors' whims. Eventually, they say, they hope to gain easements on all 2,500 of Maine's coastal islands, where weekend cottages have begun sprouting randomly... All of the islands brought under the trust's wing so far have been turned over to Acadia National Park...”
The Rockefellers and their friends have their mansions and yachts, but your home is deemed merely a “whim” that never should have been allowed to “sprout” and spoil their view — and not just on islands. Hence the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and the National Park Service.
Acadia National Park officials in the late 1960s urged Peggy Rockefeller to create the Trust as a means to block private homes on land not owned by the park. She hired and funded Acadia Chief Ranger Robert Binnewies, the second in command at Acadia, to set up and run the new organization. He was put on the founding board of directors. The new Binnewies Trust operation for National Park Service acquisition was announced in August 1970 in the Rockefeller mansion.
Ben Emory, a graduate of Phillip Exeter Academy, Harvard, and Dartmouth business school, who came from a wealthy Manhattan family that summered on the Maine Coast, who knew the Rockefellers, and who spent much of his life on yacht cruises, worked with the Trust from its founding and later became Executive Director. Emory reported some of the history, presented with pretentious arrogance and laced with contempt towards those in the way, in his 2017 autobiographical account of his relentless ends–justifies–the–means “conservation”.
Emory calls the insider relation between the Trust and Acadia a “partnership”, openly revealing the collaboration in which the non-profit Trust exploited government power while the National Park Service exploited and relied on the private organization and its funding in ways it legally could not do itself as a government agency.
Emory reports that “The preservation of [the] islands by means of the newly announced Maine Coast Heritage Trust effort was so important to Acadia that the Park's superintendent, John Good, served on the original board of directors”.
The first Executive Director was Elmer Beal, a music graduate of Bowdoin and folk singer who spent two years in the Peace Corps in Latin America before graduate school in anthropology at the University of Texas. Emory describes Beal as a “descendent” of a Southwest Harbor lobstering family, who for publicity was “important to the Trust in helping offset criticism that the organization was a tool of summer people focused on protecting their views and playground.”
Acadia's Binnewies became Executive Director in 1971 after Beal left to teach (1972-2014) at the new activist College of the Atlantic. Emory became Executive Director in early 1976, when Binnewies wanted to move back the National Park Service, and remained Director until 1982.
The funding and plans for the Trust were fully in keeping with the Rockefeller family tradition of funding and influencing policy of the National Park Service to eliminate others' private owership of property they wanted preserved and controlled.
(After Binnewies left the Trust he was well cared for by the Rockefeller influence. Following his stint for Peggy Rockefeller running MCHT, he was rewarded with plum political appointments as Vice President of the National Audubon Society in 1977-1978, and then back to NPS as Superintendent of Yosemite National Park in July, 1979. He was fired in February 1986 after Park police caught him illegally recording property owners whose land Binnewies wanted for the park, and he was accused of financial irregularities and tolerating illegal drug transactions in the park. His connections with the political elite then rescued him with another plum position as Executive Director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission in NY and NJ, another preservation agency long under Rockefeller influence.)
The Maine Coast Heritage Trust from the beginning supported and lobbied for government condemnation to take land, which under law had been prohibited since the original land trust first acquired land for Acadia using state eminent domain before it turned the land over to the National Park Service in 1916 to escape a local revolt.
Soliciting donations of money and land from the wealthy to expand Acadia had become too slow for them, and the accumulating acquisitions had surrounded other private property, turning it into inholdings that the Trust and the National Park Service wanted to take under general NPS policy of removing inholders nationwide.
The National Park Service had in 1960 begun using condemnation on an enormous and accelerating scale to expand National Parks and acquire land for new Parks nationwide; the Trust and Acadia officials did not want to be left behind by constraints on their power under law.
The Trust supported the Acadia expanded acquisition Master Plans released in 1972 and 1976 in pursuit of Congressional approval for direct acquisition using condemnation. The plans were widely denounced by local people, who did not want either condemnation or expanded acquisition taking over more land in the towns and the loss of the tax base.
The Trust pushed for the Plans, and had open contempt for the people oppossing them, in particular the Director of the County Planning Commission, Jim Haskell. Emory unsuccessfully lobbied Haskell directly for years. Emory's politically self&ndashserving history smears Haskell for what he calls "tirades against Acadia", "torpedo[ing] well-intentioneed efforts", "oratorical skill and technique of an evangelical preacher", and "stoking" and "fanning" "local fears" and "feelings against the federal government" — all as if there were no reason for the opposition to the arrogant Federal acquisition plans.
A version of the Master Plan later brokered by Sen. George Mitchell passed Congress in the 1986 Acadia Boundary legislation (PL 99-420) in the form of a Washington-imposed political “compromise”. Following political promises of no eminent domain, the 1986 law confined the National Park to fixed boundaries (not extending across the whole county) but threatens condemnation of inholders trapped inside the new boundaries if they try to build or expand a home or engage in unapproved landscaping or other uses.
The Trust and other non-profits exploit the government condemnation threat to buy land — from owners who can't use their land or sell to anyone else — to transfer the property to Acadia National Park.
They insist, when pushed, that as private non-profits they are buying from voluntary sellers. NPS calls anyone who gives in and sells under the condemnation threat a “willing seller” because there is no court trial. Most property owners give in rather than try to endure an expensive and futile court battle, limited to the amount of payment because the Federal agency's acquisition power cannot be challenged.
Emory complains that the 1986 boundaries limited expansion, confining the Trust and NPS. His history does not mention eminent domain or condemnation, which the NPS boosters consider only a routine detail. The national Land Trust Alliance (originally started by Rockefeller and Emory as a tax-deduction lobby) euphemistically calls eminent domain a “traditional means of acquisition”, which they don't want anyone talking about as if it doesn't matter.
Expansion Beyond Acadia
MCHT soon grew beyond its Acadia acquisition role. It branched out to targeting land in collaboration with state agencies and with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with its condemnation power to control landowners; and provided tax-exempt easments from wealthy landowners who didn't want to develop land around them. MCHT maintains and exploits close connections to influence State and Federal government agencies.
Within a few years of its founding MCHT began transferring easements to other non-profits such as Audubon and The Nature Conservancy, and eventually began holding land and easements itself. But Emory reports that co-founder “Tom Cabot believed that only the federal government was a reliable holder of conservation easements for the long run. It was remote from local politics, diod not depend for survival on the vagaries of fundraising, and had all the resources of the U.S. Department of Justice to bring to bear, if necessary, to enforce conservation easement restrictions.”
MCHT boasted in 2010 in an extended PR campaign that it had a war chest of $100 million to buy up land – land that its backers do not want other people to own or use. It arranges for exclusionary preservation of land in wealthy coastal areas of southern and mid–coast Maine, and has targeted rural downeast Maine for sweeping preservation to prevent development and eliminate private ownership over vast areas for what it calls “landscape level conservation”.
The history of MCHT in Washington County is especially arrogant and virulent in its “landscape level conservation” scope and methods that it calls “saving” the coast — from private owners.
Grabbing the Coast: MCHT/NPS National Natural Landmark Scandal
On April 17, 1987 Hank Tyler, former head of The Nature Conservancy in Maine and then running the Critical Areas Program in the Maine State Planning Office, sent a “draft preliminary evaluation of the Cutler Coastline as a National Natural Landmark” already planned by the National Park Service to James Allen at the NPS Boston North Atlantic Region headquarters. He wrote:“The Maine Coast Heritage Trust is very interested in land use and land conservation issues along the Washington County coast. The Trust has recently established a Washington County Committee to assist with the protection of the county's unique coastline. We should coordinate our efforts with Bruce Jacobson, Executive Director, Maine Coast Heritage Trust.”
The “ efforts” at “protection” by Tyler and the National Park Service were the secrete designation of 20 miles of mostly privately owned coast as a “Nationally Significant” “National Natural Landmark” in order to eliminate private residents.
MCHT was subsequently assigned by the National Park Serviceto conduct the secret “study” conducted to justify what they all knew in advance that they wanted. The Nature Conservancy was doing the same at Great Wass in Beals.
The National Park Service, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and the Maine State Planning Office all knew from the beginning that their secret reconassaince and planning for the Washington County coast was to use a National Park Service official designation to take over the mostly private property on the Cutler–Trescott–Lubec coast and Great Wass at Beals.
In April 1987 the Maine Times reported that Jay Espy of the Trust had said they tried to get the State to block homes on the coast because it was being evaluated by the National Park Service as “nationally significant”, and following MCHT's lead, called for State acquisition of the entire coast.
On Nov. 13, 1986, National Park Service official Mary Foley in the Boston office of the NPS North Atlantic Region, had told Tyler that NPS was evaluating six sites in Maine as potential National Natural Landmarks and “enclosed the Section 8 reporting forms you will need.”
“Section 8 reports” referred to authority under the NPS General Authorities Act of 1970, a process at the time for NPS to recommend to Congress twelve new National Parks every year — called the “Park of the Month Club ” by those fighting against the surge in repeated massive population displacements for new National Parks beginning in the 1970s. The “National Significance” designations as Landmarks are regarded under NPS policy as the primary criterion for being taken over as a National Park. NPS and its lobby were openly describing the National Natural Landmarks designation program as a “feeder program” for new National Parks and “Ladies in Waiting”.
The NPS Landmarks program, begun by NPS and The Nature Conservancy in 1961 and later turned into a new park feeder program, was not authorized by Congress but was required by NPS regulations to notify the landowners and obtain permission to inspect their land. The downeast Maine property owners, all of whom had been identified by John Briggs in the State Planning Office by April 1987, were not told anything.
When caught later, Tyler and MCHT claimed they were not responsible for NPS requirements to notify landowners; NPS said it was not responsible for what MCHT and the State Planning Office did as outside organizations.
NPS was forced to acknowledge problems after Maine Senators Cohen and Mitchell wrote to Interior Secretary Lujan in July, 1989, requesting an “immediate review” and saying “The inability or unwillingness of the NPS to answer questions in a forthright manner and take responsibility for its actions has generated a deep mistrust of the National Park Service in Maine”, which led to a national “moratorium” on the Landmarks program in Nov. 1989.
An Interior Dept. Inspector General (IG) preliminary audit of the Landmarks program, which NPS tried to prevent, was released Dec. 6, 1989. Based on a survey of 25 Landmarks designated since 1980, it concluded that “the NPS was not following its regulations” and “the property rights of over 2,800 landowners [in already designated sites] may have been infringed upon.”
The National Natural Landmarks program resumed during the Clinton administration after George Mitchell retired from the Senate.
The Maine Coast Heritage Trust to this day does not acknowledge the scandal and there is no mention of National Landmarks in Emory's history.
Target: Washington County
In the 1987 MCHT further provided the National Park Service with an unpublished report (obtained under the Freedom of Information Act) compiling methods for a government takeover of private land in Washington County, including potential state, national and international park acquisition, greenline land use prohibitions and official national designations intended to lead to them.
The MCHT report was part of an arrangement with Greenline [“Countryside”] officials from Britain operating under an international agreement with the National Park Serivce. The agreement included pursuit of “The conservation and management of the undeveloped coast line” and “Techniques for securing the public interest in the conservation of privately owned land”.
The MCHT Roosevelt-Campobello International Park External Threats Report found that the “Park resource and visitor experience” on Campobello Island in Canada “are threatened” by private land use in Lubec. “Instead of another narrowly–defined designation; i.e., the Cutler Coast National Landmark, perhaps it is appropriate to confer special status on the entire Quoddy area.”
The MCHT/National Park Service consortium also included land use planners at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The latter group was also part of the US Forest Service's Northern Forest Lands Study arranged by pressure groups in the late 1980s to plan the Greeenlining of 26 million acres of mostly private property across four states, including 2/3 of Maine.
The Amherst Massachusetts strategic planning group was also active in the 1988 National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA) plan that included imposing five new National Parks on millions of acres in Maine. (The head of the Amherst Greenline report, Kathy Sferra, had worked on the NPCA New Parks Plan.)
The nationwide promotion for two of the five intended new Federal parks in Maine encompassed most of Washington County and were based on MCHT's behind–the–scenes planning and NPS connections hidden from those who live, work and own the land in the targeted region: MCHT and the Maine State Planning Office were cited in the 1988 NPCA National Park System Plan as the “source of information” for a priority plan for the National Park Service to take over most of the privately owned land and private homes, especially in sparser remote areas, in Washington County.
The target included all of the Cobscook Bay region, the Cutler-Trescott-Lubec coast, the “inland” region, the Machias River corridor for a “national wild and scenic river” for the “primary river corridor” and a “national recreation area or national river to include the river corridor and significant tracts within the watershed”, and “the fresh water lakes of the Machias area (and to the east of Machias)”.
The new park plan was soundly rejected by local people after it was publicly revealed in national promotions by the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) and NPCA and supported by Maine Audubon. (NRCM and Maine Audubon had also been part of the National Landmark secret planning.)
Implementing the plan would have required — not revealed in the promotions — mass condemnations to remove people, as had been done for new parks across the country previously. (The promotion was before the NPS lobby learned to call its proposals “for the economy” instead of saying what they are doing.)
MCHT tried to derail the early local protests against the two National Parks for Washington County in 1988: It attempted to cajole the American Land Rights Association from helping the property owners, claiming that MCHT was “doing good things” — MCHT did not want the open campaign for new National Parks to draw attention to the secret plans already under way. The National Park Service doesn't want local people to know what it is doing either.
In the late spring of 1988, after the NPCA/NPS new Park promotions for Maine were launched, the MCHT collaboration with the National Park Service and the Maine State Planning Office to secretly designate the coastal National Landmark was discovered and then exposed, but only gradually identified for what it was. The parallel Landmark being “studied” by The Nature Conversancy in the same NPS/State Planning Office collaboration was subsequently uncovered. It took four years for property owners to stop the designations that were being used as a secret new park feeder program. MCHT and TNC, when exposed, publicly insisted the Landmark designations were “voluntary” and intended as an “honor”.
As the National Park plans began to fail following continued strenuous local protest. MCHT continued to work on other Federal methods. In the 1990s MCHT collaborated (along with The Nature Conservancy and others) with the US Fish and Wildlife Service as an alternate mechanism for Federal acquisition downeast. Aside from an expansion in eastern Washington County of the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge to engulf and then ultimately remove unwilling private owners, an additional scheme for the Moosehorn expansion to take over the much larger coastal region from Lubec to Cutler failed following the protests.
MCHT secretly arranged through the Conservation Fund in Virginia for out of state funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation for the acquisition of over 10,000 acres of the former Hearst Corp timberlands, a large portion of the towns of Cutler and Whiting. After the plan expecting it to become part of a new Federal Refuge unit failed, MCHT turned the land over to the state, becoming the self–contained Cutler Reserve.
Following the initial failures of mass Federal acquisition, MCHT has continued to buy up the land along the Washington County coast itself in a drive to take over as much as it can, especially in Lubec, Trescott and Cutler, using a combination of state subsidies and funding from wealthy out of state non–profits like the Richard King Mellon Foundation.
A Maine Coast Heritage Trust March 19, 2008 letter (written by Quoddy Regional Land Trust's Alan Brooks) to the State in its application for a $1.5 million state subsidy for a massive acquisition of land on the coast complains that homeowners it surrounds “threaten Landscape level conservation islanded by residential lots”. This reflects MCHT's previously promoted “countryside [greenline] protection agenda” to restrict people to within only approved “settlement clusters”.
Some of the MCHT's acquisition were made possible by political alliances with more openly radical activists in NRCM forcing owners to sell to the Trust through regulatory harassment and economic strangulation, as they did to Norman Langdon, the former owner of the land in MCHT's preserve at Western Head in Cutler where MCHT boasts that it stopped dozens of people's homes (actually eleven). The more openly radical NRCM publicly called its collaboration with MCHT “good cop – bad cop”
In Maine, MCHT controls its own image by promoting itself as “assisting” landowners. Outside the state, where the controversy over MCHT's history is even less well known, it ominously promotes the Washington County coastline nationally as if it were a public park with no private ownership – an image MCHT wants to dominate so that no one will sympathize with its victims not publicly known to exist. Whatever it offers in the way of “assistance” to selected kinds of landowners in the state, it exploits political privilege and connections as its means; private property rights are the last thing it supports or “assists”.
MCHT remains active in partisan state politics, quietly promoting state land use prohibitions and politicians who support it. In 2014 MCHT lobbied against a state law that reclaimed the authority of the legislature to approve or deny the ceding of land and state jurisdiction to the Federal government.
Oddly, the trust insists – on the rare occasions that it responds to criticism of its government insider corruption and undue political influence trampling of property rights – that it buys from “willing sellers”, as if the fact that as an NGO (non-government organization) it does not itself have direct eminent domain powers absolves it from all other forms of undue influence in collaboration with government agencies.
In 2022 MCHT became part of the insider “working group” planning a new Downeast Maine National Heritage Area across all of Washington and Hancock Counties. Assured by its promoters to be nothing more than a source of free government money earned from the honor of being a “Nationally Important Landscape”, it is in fact legislation for Federally mandated comprehensive planning and land control “protection”, coordinated by an appointed non-profit organization as an overlay over local elected government and designed to lead to a National Park. National Heritage Areas, initiated as part of the drive for Greenline parks in the 1970s, have always been intended for political land use control.
But MCHT exploits its political and financial clout through the media as well. It continually bombards the state with politically self serving PR invoking emotionally manipulative scenic imagery which in turn dominates media coverage of MCHT with fauning adulation. The corruption and the behind–the–scenes power plays are not to be mentioned. Like the National Park Service, MCHT hides what it is behind the scenery.
For some of the background on Rockefeller money used to buy and influence National Park Service policy, including hiring NPS's Binnewies to start and run MCHT, see:
- Apil 1991 Downeast Magazine Annual Environtal Award cover story
- Binnewies, Palisades 100,000 Acres in 100 Years, Fordham University Press and Palisades Interstate Park Commission, 2001.
- Winks, Laurence S. Rockefeller: Catalyst for Conservationa, Island Press, 1997.
- Emory, Sailor for the Wild, Seapoint, 2017.
- Acadia Creation Myth
- Maine Coast Heritage Trust Insider Federal Planning Against Private Owners, Downeast Coastal Press August 1991
- Maine Coast Heritage Trust Wants Federal Role for Entire Quoddy Region as National Landmark , Downeast Coastal Press April 1991
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