Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport, ME has been a host site for the Maine Conservation Corps for thirty years. In this interview, Park Manager Andy Hutchinson talks about trail work, environmental education outreach, and the role of MCC at state parks.
Interview by Hannah Colbert, currently serving a second 1700-hour term of service at Wolfe’s Neck Woods, a position that balances environmental education and trail maintenance. Wolfe’s Neck Woods has five miles of trail and about 70,000 visitors per year. It offers numerous environmental education programs, including free field trips for Maine schools and guided nature tours weekly in the winter, on weekends in the spring and fall, and daily in the summer.
How did the park first become involved with the Maine Conservation Corps?
Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park has been working with the Maine Conservation Corps almost since its inception. I’ve been here for 30 years, and the MCC recently had their 30th anniversary, and we’ve had field teams here almost every year since it started. There were only two years in which we haven’t had a team here. We’ve also had environmental educators and environmental stewards here since 2012. That was the first year it was offered.
How have you been involved with the Maine Conservation Corps?
I was a park ranger when I first worked as a technical supervisor to the Field Team. John Cooke was managing the park at the time. The team would work here for one or two weeks during the summer months. I was a park ranger for four years, and when I became manager in 1990 I became the person who either recruited the Field Teams or was the technical supervisor, depending on the time of year. I would always be there to work with them and communicate with them about the project.
Andy was informally but unanimously voted “best host site sponsor ever” by last year’s November field team, after bringing food and hot drinks to the work site.
How did the park find out about the Maine Conservation Corps?
I think it was brought to our attention by our supervisors in the Bureau of Parks and Lands. The Maine Conservation Corps wasn’t under the same bureau at the time—it was a separate program, but we were still closely tied to them. A lot of the projects that the Maine Conservation Corps continues to do are with the state parks.
How much of the trail work at Wolfe’s Neck Woods has MCC done?
We tend to do the routine maintenance and small trail projects that we have time for. It’s really a function of staff and availability, and we don’t have that luxury, since we have a pretty small budget and a small staff. We generally use the Maine Conservation Corps to do major trail work projects like log bridges, water bars, cutting and filling trails, and a lot of rock work, like rock walkways and rock steps. We’ve been transitioning all our water bars to rock; originally they were log back in the day, but we quickly figured out they didn’t last very long.
What are some of the most memorable projects that the trail teams worked on?
(Laughs) About six or seven years ago, we had a crew that was putting the paved rock walkway on the Casco Bay Trail. There’s a major gully that’s part of that too, and they built a large rock culvert. I can still picture that crew in the gully, up to their hips in mud. It was a very wet time to be working there, and they had to lift up these huge rocks for culvert support and the huge rock slab that’s now part of that walkway. Those are probably the most impressive things—the rocks they find to do the job and how well they hold up.
The Environmental Steward program began after you became manager. How did you decide to start having Environmental Stewards at Wolfe’s Neck?
At that point, I think that the park and the Maine Conservation Corps had both come under the Bureau of Parks and Lands, so we were very aware of their programs. We had seen an increase in the demand for our educational programs and we still had more than we could really do at the park to take care of on our own. We saw a decline in volunteers helping with the programs, so there was a real need for help with our environmental education programs.
What does having the Environmental Steward position here allow Wolfe’s Neck to do with educational programming?
It allows us to accommodate almost all the groups who want to schedule programs at the park. We don’t have to juggle our schedules as much, which can be hard on our staff. They’ve been very good about that, but it is disruptive to the park. That’s been great. We’ve been able to expand our outreach program a lot.
In 2015, Wolfe’s Neck Woods received more than fifty field trips for educational nature programs, serving about 2,090 participants. Park Manager Andy Hutchinson, Ranger Michael Frey, Environmental Steward Jordan Tate and I led the programs.
Could you talk a bit more about what the outreach program is and how it got started?
We’ve always done some outreach at Wolfe’s Neck Woods. It’s part of the mission for the interpretive program here that’s funded from the Wolfe’s Neck Trust: to do environmental education at other parks or around the community, at libraries or for different groups who want us to come and do a presentation. We have recently seen a big increase in demand for one of our programs in particular, Animal Tracks and Signs, which we promoted at the 2015 Reading Roundup Conference, a state wide conference of librarians. That was the first time we were invited to share our program there—I think they had heard of the program we put on for the local Freeport community library and they invited us to come and talk to librarians at a statewide level.
Once we were discovered there, it really took off. We had over a dozen programs in 2015. We really looked at that a little harder because it was drawing us out of the park a lot and there were some costs as well, so in 2016 we are offering that program with a suggested donation to help allay the costs. We’re still getting lots of calls about it, and people are more than willing to pay the $75 fee. Its been really well received—some libraries from last year have already rescheduled for this year, and we have some new ones as well, both for summer programs and the school year.
In the Animal Tracks and Signs program, geared towards elementary and middle-school students, kids make plaster casts of tracks, learn some basic tracking skills, and learn about three different Maine animals. The program has a ratio of three presenters for twenty-five students. Since the park has a staff of five—Park Manager Andy Hutchinson, Rangers Tami Bill and Michael Frey, and two booth attendants—having two Environmental Stewards at Wolfe’s Neck has meant that more staff members can stay in the park whenever possible.
What role do you see the Environmental Steward position playing in the park in the future?
The amount of staff we have with the addition of two Maine Conservation Corps Environmental Stewards gives us a pretty good staffing level. I’d like to keep going with the Environmental Steward program and expand our staff seasons to cover the entire busy season, which goes well into October and starts sometime in April. (Park Rangers work from late April to late August or September.) Having a 1700-hour member and a 900-hour member is ideal. We could even use two 1700-hour members—we haven’t done that yet. We were going to try that this year, but the grant funding wasn’t there. We may look into that to see if we can get two 1700-hour positions to help us with more outreach and with Feathers over Freeport in April, our largest event of the year, since 900-hour members don’t start until May. That would also help us with our school season—all the field trips want to come in June at the end of the school year, but because of the browntail moth caterpillar infestation we’re trying to get more of them to come in late April or early May.
What do you want other potential site supervisors to know about having trail teams or an environmental steward at their site?
Anyone who’s looking for really professional level trail work to be done is going to get that with the Maine Conservation Corps field teams, and we’ve had great luck with them. Our trails would not be in the same condition they’re in today. They can do a lot of work in a short period of time and they can do a lot of the major trail work that resource managers often don’t have the staff or time to do. I highly recommend the field teams.
Environmental Stewards are going to bring that same level of professionalism to a work site and give you a real boost in your ability to provide exceptional programming to visitors or to do outreach. We’ve had great luck in that regard too; all our environmental stewards have brought some unique qualities to the workplace and left their marks here. We have a number of programs that have been developed by Environmental Stewards, which are some of our most popular and most enjoyed programs. They can really help you to provide programming that you wouldn’t otherwise have the ability to do.
I know that for most agencies looking into this program, its always a struggle to find enough funding to do everything you want to do, so this can be a good alternative to finding staff members. The Maine Conservation Corps is easy to work with too; they’ve been very flexible. I think it’s been a real boon to state parks and can be that way for a lot of other agencies too. I’ve seen it at Mount Blue, Sebago Lake, here, and even at Ferry Beach where our Environmental Stewards have helped out quite a bit. Having someone on site is ideal.
I see the program expanding. It’s really difficult to obtain funding for new positions in parks, so this is a way for us to do the work we need to do without getting the positions that we would love to have but aren’t able to. Every State agency is struggling to find enough staff—it’s a statewide issue and parks are no different. The Bureau of Parks and Lands definitely sees the value of these positions.
Six 900 hour Environmental Steward positions are open with the Bureau of Parks and Lands for 2016: Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park, Mt. Blue State Park, Sebago Lake State Park, Vaughan Woods State Park, Grafton Notch State Park, and Bigelow Preserve Public Reserved Land.