By Susan Drake Swift
When summer comes to the islands of Maine, so do the summer people.
Sailboats ply the breeze, motorboats push off from the docks, laden with picnics, children, and dogs in matching life jackets. Hikers and cyclists are rewarded with fragrant forests and meadows, wild blueberries consumed on the spot, and, at the end of the day, lobster trapped in local waters. Caught up in this timeless idyll, it sometimes seems the only universal worry is securing a space on “the boat” – the ferry – when it is time to leave.
Yet even here, the world’s challenges are ever present – challenges that can weigh particularly heavy on the roughly 5,000 full-time residents of the region. “Island communities have an uncertain future,” says Rob Snyder, president of the 4,000-member Island Institute, which works to support islanders and coastal residents. “Our economy is increasingly dependent on one species, lobster, and tourism. Attracting and retaining young families is hard.”
And it grows harder as communities get smaller. While several Maine islands with more than 300 residents are thriving, those with fewer than 300 find the going gets rougher. Those with 100 people or less can find it hard to get out of a downward spiral. “How do you keep a tiny island school open?” asks Jason Mann, media director for the Institute. “There are a lot of people working hard to answer that question. But it’s difficult. And it probably always will be.”
Islanders and coastal residents face another kind of challenge as well: climate change. The Gulf of Maine is experiencing warmer waters and increased acidification, as well as sea level rise. Higher acidity weakens marine ecosystems and is believed to depress metabolic rates and immune responses in some forms of sea life. Warmer waters can cause coral bleaching, a growing phenomenon that prompts the corals to cast off the symbiotic algae they depend on for their color as well as their health.
Overfishing, another problem, has caused iconic species like the cod to decline 90 percent in the last three decades. They are now at historic lows.
When the Island Institute was founded by Philip Conkling and Peter Ralston in 1983, it emphasized ecology and land use, then emerging fields, and provided forestry and conservation services to property owners. Over time, it has come to focus on a bigger picture: sustaining local communities. Schools, cultural institutions, marine co-ops, and a wide range of other enterprises all became a part of the mix. “We looked at the requests for help and the skills we had available,” says Rob, “and we brought everything together under one roof.”
“Everything” now includes community development, economic development, education, energy, marine resources, and media. The role of the Institute’s robust print and online media program is to spread the good news about what works — like insulating your home and new developments in aquaculture — across the archipelago. “We report the news of Maine’s coast and islands in our paper, which is valuable in its own right. But we also work to share ideas and speed up the feedback loop,” says Jason, to encourage the replication of good ideas and to help islanders learn from each other’s setbacks.
Now we always look for ‘the fit’ – something that will be appreciated by the community and be important to the community.
About seven years ago, Rob notes, the Institute came to a new understanding of its purpose. It happened during a meeting on Islesboro, an island a few miles off the coast of Lincolnville, Maine. Residents were discussing capacity building for libraries and other services. “We realized that these things were linked to increased taxes and that if we weren’t careful, we could warp the outcome. If the private sector was not growing enough and the property taxpayers did not have the bandwidth to pay for it all, then our great ideas could cause a real problem.” (Islesboro now boasts more than 600 year-round residents, a community center, a health center, cultural arts programming, and a newly renovated K-12 school.) “We began working more closely with small businesses, created a loan fund, and engaged in more partnerships with the private sector, in addition to nonprofits.”
Another learning experience occurred when the Institute sought to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. “The program was great,” says Rob. “The fact that it was funded was a success in itself. But it was missing a direct connection with students and teachers. Now we always look for ‘the fit’ – something that will be appreciated by the community and be important to the community.”
To ensure its own sustainability, the Institute has worked assiduously to diversify its budget. Half of its $5.5 million budget is grant restricted, with its 4,000 members contributing the lion’s share of its unrestricted funds. It has an endowment of $19 million and earned income from its Rockland-based store and other sales, and it has secured program-related investments (PRIs) as well to help underwrite some of its programs.
After 32 years, the leaders of the Island Institute know one thing full well: the future of Maine’s island and coastal communities is squarely in the residents’ hands “As much as we try to help, we cannot and should not try to come in and fix it all,” says Jason. “We try to be practical and responsive, not romantic.”