On June 30 the Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance closed on the purchase of the 410-acre Whitten Hill property in Montville after a two-year campaign. More than $726,000 was raised, a portion of which will be placed in a fund for the long-term stewardship of the property.

“I cannot convey how pleased we are to have protected this beautiful and strategically located property,” said SWLA board member Read Brugger of Freedom. “We worked hard to make this happen.”

In 2008 a conservation plan was completed for the entire 204,900-acre Sheepscot River watershed. Whitten Hill lies within one of the priority areas identified for protection. The land is contiguous with seven properties already conserved by SWLA and its protection creates a core block of 1,100 protected acres — an area larger than Sears Island in Penobscot Bay.

Of Whitten Hill’s 410 acres, 396 are forested, with excellent wildlife habitat for species requiring undisturbed river corridor habitat and interior, mature forest. The remaining 14 acres are in fields and will be maintained as such to provide woodcock and other bird habitat.

SWLA’s management objective for the property is to protect the forestland as forever wild — no disturbance from activities such as forestry or development — to help promote greater biodiversity and ecosystem function in the region. Biodiversity is the “variety and variability among living organisms and the ecological complexes in which they occur.” Scientists have determined that the biggest threats to biodiversity are habitat loss, fragmentation of natural areas and the introduction of non-native species.

Whitten Hill is one of the largest remaining properties in the Sheepscot River watershed, with more than 2,600 feet of frontage on the pristine headwaters and a forest with trees as old as 200 years. The property is part of a larger landscape vision to conserve more than 10,000 contiguous acres of working forest and forever wild lands that would stretch from the state’s Frye Mountain Wildlife Management Area to the Sheepscot River headwaters. More than 7,100 acres are conserved in this area to date, in public agency, land trust and private ownerships.

In 2000 the Sheepscot River was one of eight Maine rivers identified as critical habitat for the endangered Atlantic salmon and the river on the property has documented Atlantic salmon spawning and rearing habitat. In 2009, for the first time, Atlantic salmon fry were released in the upper watershed at several locations in Palermo and Montville. Another 54,000 fry were also released in 2010 and it is hoped that the high quality habitat in the upper watershed will support a successful rearing effort and higher returns of adult salmon to the Sheepscot River in subsequent years.

Although there was substantial local support for which SWLA Executive Director Buck O’Herin said the land trust is “immensely grateful,” bookend awards — from the Land for Maine’s Future Program in 2008 ($244,000) and Maine Natural Resource Conservation Program in 2010 ($175,000) — were critical to the success of this project.

“When our 2008 grant application to LMF was successful, we knew we had a good chance to protect the land,” said O’Herin. “Our successful application in the 2009 inaugural round of MNRCP grants cinched it for us. I was always confident that Whitten Hill would be protected; I just wasn’t sure how long it would take us.”

A popular 26-mile trail network, the largest footpath network in Waldo County and one of the largest in the Midcoast, crosses Whitten Hill and the adjoining properties. In addition to non-motorized recreation, Whitten Hill is open to the public for hunting, fishing and trapping.

SWLA has been protecting land in the upper Sheepscot River watershed in Waldo County through conservation easements and land acquisitions since 1991. SWLA now protects 1,250 acres and 12 diverse properties that include forever wild land, working woodlands, wetlands and fields.

For more information about SWLA and its work or to contribute to the Whitten Hill stewardship fund, call 589-3230 or write to SWLA, P.O. Box 155, Freedom, ME 04941.