Wiscasset’s deep harbor, tidal river, wildlife, forests, gently rolling land, and freshwater streams and ponds must have suggested a fortuitous location for settlement. These assets still invest the Town with special richness, providing an attractive setting for homes, businesses, civic institutions, recreation, and a productive environment for natural-resources-based work.
In the recent Comprehensive Plan survey, 80% of respondents “favor balancing property rights with a need to protect deeryards, wildlife habitat, and undeveloped rural areas for hunting, hiking, and trails.” Eighty-two percent agreed that they want to “protect natural areas such as wetlands mapped and identified as having high value for fish nursery or wildlife habitat.” In addition, 63% favor guiding new development to avoid disturbing wildlife corridors. Seventy-seven percent favor protecting well water by ordinance standards. Seventy-six percent favor guiding new construction to preserve special scenic views. In other words, townspeople value their natural environment. Below is a sample of some of Wiscasset's most treasured natural assets.
The health of the Sheepscot River includes the quality of our smaller surface water bodies. We have three major brooks: Montsweag, Ward, and Polly Clark. We also have one “great pond,” Gardiner Pond, in the northwest corner of the town. There are several smaller ponds on private property. A stream in Wiscasset’s Nequasset Watershed District feeds into Nequasset Brook, which runs to Nequasset Lake.
Wiscasset’s surface water is crucial to the human and ecological health of the town. The Sheepscot River is perhaps our most defining and important natural resource and the three major brooks all run into it. Surface water in the Nequasset watershed flows into Nequasset Lake in Woolwich, which, by way of the Bath Water District, provides Wiscasset’s public water supply for more than 500 customers. The largest of Wiscasset’s inland surface water bodies—Montsweag Brook (one of the Town’s three major streams) and Gardiner Pond (a state-classified “great pond”)—provide recreational opportunities for paddlers, swimmers, fishermen, and small-craft sailors. Two other major streams—Polly Clark and Ward—and smaller streams and ponds attract fishermen, swimmers, and skaters. Many small first-order streams feed into these bigger brooks. Surface water bodies support a wide variety of wildlife, from fish to four-legged mammals to plants. Surface water also enhances the scenic value of its surroundings.
Sheepscot River. The Sheepscot River and all its tributaries and minor drainage streams are classified “B.” The Water Quality Classification System (Title 38 §464, etc.) is based on a combination of current and desired quality. The classification’s regulatory significance is that new discharges have to meet the current standards, with measurable parameters. In short, degradation of existing water quality is forbidden.
Class B waters are suitable for drinking water after treatment, fishing, swimming, boating, industrial process, cooling water, power generation, and habitat for fish and other aquatic life. The regulations state that “The habitat shall be characterized as unimpaired” and “Discharge effluent must be equal to or better than existing water quality of the receiving waters” (Title 38 Section 465).
All tidal waters around the Sheepscot River estuary and Wiscasset are designated Class SB. Class SB is suitable for swimming, boating, fishing, aquaculture, propagation and harvesting of shellfish, and a variety of industrial uses (as mentioned above).
Nequasset Lake. Although Nequasset Lake is not in Wiscasset, it is the reservoir for the town’s public water supply and the watershed that feeds it, including a stream that runs into Nequasset Brook in Dresden. The Nequasset Lake watershed covers the western corner of Wiscasset at the intersection of the Wiscasset, Dresden, and Woolwich town lines. A thorough report on the lake and the watershed was prepared in 1989 by Dresden, Wiscasset, and Woolwich in conjunction with the non-profit Bath Water District, which manages the reservoir and conveyance of water to Wiscasset. The report found that phosphorous levels in the lake were high; development pressure in the watershed was a threat to water quality; and the three affected towns should carefully regulate development in the watershed. Jointly planning the watershed “as a single, natural system,” all three towns should apply “a uniform set of plans and standards which reflect the dependency of people, wildlife, and natural communities upon a natural environment.” Very little joint planning has taken place until recently when the Nequasset Lake survey began.
The Bath Water District considers protection of the watershed the most important strategy for assuring Nequasset’s water quality. Although the district believes there is plenty of water for the future, increased development in Wiscasset and new situations such as Edgecomb’s request to hook into Wiscasset’s water supply raise important issues for all the towns involved.
Gardiner Pond. Gardiner Pond is situated in the northwest part of the town. Gardiner Pond has a surface area of 74 acres. Its maximum depth is 21 feet; its mean depth is 14 feet. It is a “great pond” and, like all great ponds in the state, is classified “GPA.” The lakes’ trophic state, chlorophyll content, secchi disk transparency, and total phosphorus determine that classification. Again, the significance of the classification is the limitation on discharge.
Gardiner pond is a mesotrophic (moderately productive) pond managed for warm-water fisheries by Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW). Principle fisheries in the pond include smallmouth bass and chain pickerel. Other species that inhabit the pond are: American eel, Pumpkin seed sunfish, yellow perch, golden shiner, white sucker and numerous minnow species. The pond is regulated via General Law for the Open Water fishing season and as Class A (open after the first formation of safe ice) for the ice fishing season.
Gardiner Pond is part of the much larger Dresden bog complex. As such, protection of the pond will provide benefits not only to the pond itself, but extend to downstream areas of the wetland complex. To ensure such protection, the town should establish development setbacks that utilize the wetland edge rather than the water’s edge as the starting point of the setback. Using the wetland edge rather than the water’s edge not only protects water quality and retains wetland functions, but can also afford some variable protection against flooding in proposed development areas.
Montsweag Brook. Montsweag Brook has the second largest watershed in the town. IFW survey in 2000 found American eel, creek chub, white sucker, black-nosed dace, chain pickerel and a variety of amphibians. Due to a large wetland area at its source and a human-modified riparian area, summer water temperatures preclude resident cold-water fish species. There is also a low-head dam near the mouth of the brook that prevents entry of anadromous salmonids including brook trout. In 2004, IFW was contacted with a plan to remove the dam. Funding for the project was never secured. Removal of the dam would be an important first step in restoring cold-water fisheries to the watershed.
Ward Brook. Ward Brook was surveyed by IFW in 2006 and was inhabited by white sucker, creek chub, American eel black-nosed dace and brook trout. Only a small section of the stream was surveyed and the presence of wild brook trout is an important indicator of the streams potential for salmonids. Ward Brook should be provided with priority protection status.
Polly Clark Brook. Polly Clark Brook is a small warm-water brook. It has not been thoroughly surveyed by IFW due to lack of access. From cursory survey work it appears that the brook has a warm-water fishery.
Wetlands offer important, functional environmental values. Wetlands provide critical functions for groundwater recharge/discharge; flood flow alteration; fish and shellfish habitat; sediment/toxicant retention; nutrient removal/retention/transformation: production export; sediment/shoreline stabilization. They provide prime wildlife habitat for many species. They support timber useful to the forest products industry. They provide scenic features in our landscape and opportunities for education and recreation.
Within the Town of Wiscasset are a number of freshwater wetlands greater than 10 acres mapped by the State. It should be noted that the State maps as well as the National Wetlands Inventory map (produced by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department) are a planning guide only and wetlands should be field-verified. State-mapped wetlands include an extensive area around the headwaters of Montsweag Brook; wetlands associated with other parts of Montsweag Brook and also Ward Brook; wetlands in the extreme northwest portion of the Town by the Alna town line; wetlands north of Gardiner Pond by the Dresden town line; wetlands in the Nequasset Watershed District; wetlands between Foye Road and Willow Lane, west of Dickinson Road; and wetlands east of Route 144 and north of the Old Ferry Road.
Numerous, extensive coastal wetlands are associated with the coves and peninsulas of the Sheepscot River. From south to north: coastal wetlands fringe Chewonki Neck, Young’s Point, Reidy Point, and Bailey Point; run along the shore west of Berry Island; fill Cushman Cove and the cove below Castle Tucker; sweep from just north of the Davey Bridge over to and around Clark’s Point (with a channel of clear water dividing the wetlands in half as it runs out from Polly Clark Brook); and occur again on Wiscasset’s uppermost river shoreline.
Wiscasset has many other smaller wetlands, some of them forested, some of them not, some around ponds and streams, some freestanding. They all contribute to the network of benefits described above.
Wildlife and Unique Natural Areas
From its tidal mashes and flats to its forests and riparian areas to its ponds, river shores, wetlands, and fields, Wiscasset boasts a wide array of wildlife species. Indeed, every corner of the Town provides habitat for plants and animals like pink lady slipper, brook trout, songbirds, wide-ranging animals, freshwater and saltwater fish and seabirds. These habitats, stretching from the Sheepscot River near Chewonki Neck northwest through the Gardiner Pond, Montsweag Brook, and Ward Brook watersheds are diverse and largely intact. Fish, wildlife, and plant habitat enhance air and water quality and preserve the appeal and character of our community.
For wildlife species such as moose, deer, bobcat, and a variety of migratory songbirds, large, unbroken blocks of land, whether forests, fields, or wetland, offer important opportunities to feed, rest, and raise young. These habitat areas serve as wildlife corridors, provide refuge for an entire suite of wildlife that depends on such large, contiguous tracts for survival. Wiscasset has a number of unbroken blocks of land of between 200 and 700 acres. It also has two very large unbroken areas—6,144 acres in the areas of the Nequasset Watershed District and 8,201 acres in the northernmost part of the Town, northeast of Route 27—that are contiguous to similarly undeveloped land in Woolwich, Alna, and Dresden. These support a wide variety of wildlife.
The saltwater wetlands found along the Sheepscot are some of the most important and productive in the region. Here, a number of migratory waterfowl species make their home, feed, and raise their young. These species, including the American black duck, the snowy egret, great blue heron, and osprey, depend on the rich salt marsh and tidal regions.
Merrymeeting Bay has long been recognized as a habitat of special significance for both wildlife and rare plants. The Bay supports numerous bald eagles during the winter. Over 50 species of freshwater fish use the Bay, as well as ten species of anadromous fish, including the rare Atlantic salmon, shortnosed sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon. At least one rare mussel species inhibits the Bay. The Bay’s freshwater tidal marshes support some of the best habitat for certain rare plant species anywhere in the northeast.
The Lower Sheepscot River Focus Area has been recognized as an area of ecological significance. This stretch of river and associated tidal marshes support nesting bald eagles, rare mussels and salt marsh sparrows, and several species of rare plants. The Department of Conservation identifies the Sheepscot River, from the railroad trestle in Wiscasset to Halldale Road in Montville, as an Outstanding River Segment. State statute applies special regulations to development within an outstanding river segments.
Wiscasset’s scenic resources are important community assets, closely linked with the environment, the economy, and the quality of life here. Features of both the built and the natural world help establish the town’s identity for local citizens as well as visitors and passers-by.
The historic village is an extraordinary scenic asset, as documented in the Historic and Archaeological Resources chapter of this plan. However, townspeople also highly value views of the Sheepscot River, undeveloped forestland, and farmland.
Wiscasset has a tradition of protecting scenic resources. Since the early 20th century, townspeople have shown remarkable interest in maintaining what is beautiful in their town. Citizens have long cared for the harbor, the waterfront and the river shoreline; conserved historic houses, landmarks and buildings; and saved unusual rural features. The founding of the Lincoln County Historical Association in 1954; the gift of forest land on Willow Lane to the New England Forestry Foundation in 1955; the successful effort by citizens in 1973 to place much of the village in the National Register of Historic Places; the 1989 vote by townspeople to make Dickinson Road a “scenic road,” keeping it unpaved as one of Wiscasset’s last country lanes; the permanent protection of Cushman’s Mountain; the citizens’ campaign in 1995 to acquire the Morris Farm in order to protect it as working farmland; the gifts of Castle Tucker and the Nickels-Sortwell House to Historic New England; the conservation of the Eaton Farm by the Chewonki Foundation; and the commitments that a number of private landowners have made to assure that their rural land will remain undeveloped -- all of these acts have contributed to the quality of life in Wiscasset and given the town a unique visual identity and legacy.
There are more than 2,000 acres of land in Wiscasset currently preserved in some way from development, either through forest management, easements, classification under the Farm and Open Space Tax Law or the Tree Growth Tax Law, restricted deed, or ownership by a conservation entity.
Not all of this acreage is protected in perpetuity. About 735 acres are in the southeast part of Wiscasset, comprising the Chewonki Foundation’s holdings. About 702 contiguous acres lie west of the village, part of what many people call the “greenbelt.” This includes the Morris Farm (fields and some forest owned by a non-profit organization); the Sortwell Memorial Forest (99 acres of managed forest, classified under the Tree growth Tax Law and owned by the non-profit New England Forestry Foundation); and 171 acres classified as “open space” under the Farm and Open Space Tax Law. The Town owns a contiguous, undeveloped parcel of approximately 90 acres as well as two schools in this area. On Clark’s Point there are 167 protected acres (and there is currently talk of more land there being protected) and another 10 are protected around the headwaters of a stream that feeds into Polly Clark Brook. Approximately 622 acres in total are classified under the Tree Growth Tax Law. Most of this land is along the town’s northern boundary with Alna, in or near the Nequasset Watershed District, south of Gardiner Pond, north of the Foye Road, and, as mentioned above, in the Sortwell Memorial Forest.
Wiscasset has an unprecedented opportunity to nurture public appreciation and use of its open space and to link some of its most important undeveloped lands by creating trails for recreation and protecting wildlife travel corridors. This idea is already underway. First, the Chewonki Foundation hopes to establish a trail from the Eaton Farm, which the foundation now owns, through the protected Cushman (aka Foote’s) Mountain land, up to the Mason Station (now Point East) property, where it may link to a proposed footbridge to White’s Island, if all property owners and the Town reach agreement, and then to the village. Second, the Morris Farm Trust (just northwest of the village center) has a trail that connects with a network of trails in the Sortwell Memorial Forest. The forest abuts the Old Stone Farm, which has a public-access, pedestrian trail that runs west all the way to the power line and beyond to Montsweag Brook.
The greenbelt links the Wiscasset Primary School, the Wiscasset Community Center, the Wiscasset High School, the office of the Wiscasset School Department, and the 90-acre Town-owned parcel mentioned above.
Farming has traditionally been an important part of Wiscasset. Milk and cream, vegetables, apples, raspberries, hay, eggs, wool, beef, chicken, pork, lamb – town farmers have produced all these and more through the years. Farm families helped shape Wiscasset. But farming is not easy here. A relatively small amount of contiguous farmable acres limits the town’s agricultural production. Wiscasset’s good agricultural soils occur in small, dispersed patches and the town’s farms are, therefore, small and spread out.
Most of the agricultural soil in Wiscasset is on the heavy side because of the presence of clay, so is best suited for grazing livestock and producing hay although vegetable production is certainly possible. As of this writing, Wiscasset has three small farms that raise beef cattle; an organic vegetable and livestock farm; two educational farms (the Morris Farm and the Chewonki Foundation farm) that sell raw milk (the Morris Farm also sells organic eggs, chicken, turkey, and beef); and a Alpaca farm. Three of these farms are protected from development.
About 80 acres of the town’s active farmland lie in Wiscasset’s “greenbelt,” a tract of about 702 acres of preserved land west of the village. No land in Wiscasset is classified as “farmland” under the Farm and Open Space Tax Law. The agricultural fields in use on the Dickinson Road are protected by easement. Inactive fields on the Foye Road are classified under the Tree Growth Tax Law.
There are thousands of acres of forest in Wiscasset. Forests play an important role in establishing the town’s rural character and provide many other benefits to townspeople.
Some of Wiscasset’s forest land is protected to various degrees. The 90-acre Sortwell Memorial Forest is owned by the non-profit New England Forestry Foundation. The Chewonki Foundation owns the Cushman Mountain Preserve along the Sheepscot River where there is an exemplary stand of hemlock forest (a state-mapped Maine Natural Areas Program “occurrence”). There are also constraints on the development of 167 acres of Clark’s Point, several hundred acres in the “greenbelt” west of the village, and 10 acres on Polly Clark Brook.
Landowners of some other forests in town have put their land under a forest management plan. There are approximately 622 acres in Wiscasset classified in the Tree Growth Tax Law category. This requires the landowner to have a plan, and a licensed forester must every 10 years verify that the landowner is following it. Still other forests, such as the 200-acre Rafter-Holbrook forest on Bradford Road, are under a private management plan.
Wiscasset Harbor. The Town of Wiscasset is approximately 13 miles from the mouth of the Sheepscot River. The Wiscasset portion of the Sheepscot is well known for its deep, ice-free access and well-protected harbor – one of the deepest harbors in the state. The river was essential in the development of the town and has served commerce from the earliest days of settlement in the late 1600s. Wiscasset Harbor and the surrounding waters continue to provide access to commercial fishermen, recreational boaters, an occasional passenger vessel, and, until the closure of the Mason Station power station, barge traffic.
Boating resources: Wiscasset’s mooring field off of the Town Landing contains approximately 115 moorings. The moorings are private, their locations determined by the Town harbormaster. The number of boats has remained somewhat constant for the past few years. There is considerably more capacity for moored boats, but as moorings are placed in deeper water, boats require greater swinging room and become more spread out.
The Town pier plays a diminished role in commercial fishing as most of the lobstermen have moved their operation to the North End Cooperative. It does occasionally provide dockage for large transient vessels.
The Town docks are intended to be for loading and unloading of passengers and gear. They also provide a place for tenders to be located.
The Wiscasset Yacht Club also plays a vital role as a resource for area boaters. Their float also provides side tie dockage for boaters to load and offload passengers and gear. The club is private but not exclusive.
Recreational boaters and clam diggers and wormers use the boat ramp at the Town dock (see Boat Ramps, under Public Access, below).
Public access to the Sheepscot River is available at a number of locations including:
•Points on Chewonki Neck
•Eaton Farm property (now owned by the Chewonki Foundation)
•Cushman (aka Foote’s) Mountain (owned by the Chewonki Foundation)
•Wiscasset Middle School
•Town Landing on Water Street: This boat ramp is actively used by clam diggers and wormers throughout the year. During the summer months, it is an easily accessed and a popular launch location for recreational boaters. It has adequate parking for vehicles and trailers. It has floats that allow for loading and offloading of passengers and supplies. It also has bathroom facilities that make it popular with families.
•Old Ferry Landing (just north of Maine Yankee): There are two ramps at this location. It is generally used by commercial fishermen and recreational boaters alike. It has a large parking area and is easily accessed from Route 1.
Fisheries. With a tidal range of approximately 6 to 11 feet, there is a significant volume of salt water entering and exiting the surrounding area by way of the Sheepscot River and the Back River with each tide. The phytoplankton (microscopic drifting plants) and zooplankton (microscopic drifting animals) carried upriver by the tide provide sustenance to an abundance of life in the tidal waters of the surrounding region. These microscopic organisms at the bottom of the food chain are consumed by a variety of animals and shellfish in the waters surrounding Wiscasset, including clams, scallops, urchins, periwinkles, mussels, lobster, crabs, and shrimp. Shellfish, in addition to their resource value, contribute to improving local water quality by filtering large amounts of seawater. They also play a vital role in the food chain for many local birds, mammals, and fish.
A summary of most important species present in Wiscasset’s salt waters follows.
Worms. Wiscasset enjoys a reputation as the “worm capital of the world.” There is a market to sport-fishermen and retailers for both bloodworms and sandworms, which are found in most of the intertidal flats in town. Other than the license that the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) requires for those harvesting in excess of 125 worms per day, there are no regulations on worming. Wormers are not required to report their catch. Therefore, only estimates may be given about the size of the catch and its monetary value. Some have estimated the income in this region to be as high as $5 million dollars, making this the most valuable fishery in the town. There are thought to be more than 150 local men and women working regularly in this enterprise. Perhaps as many as 100 more are involved on a part-time basis.
Soft shell clam. Soft shell clams make up one of the largest fisheries in the Town of Wiscasset. Dealers report the clam harvest to the Department of Marine Resources (DMR). The DMR tracks the fluctuations in the harvest and compares them to those of other communities. The harvest fluctuates based on the opening and closing of beds for conservation, market value, and seasonal demand.
Lobsters. The Sheepscot and surrounding waters of Wiscasset, Westport, and Edgecomb are worked by a group of lobstermen who have established themselves as the North End Cooperative, located on the north end of Westport Island. All landings are reported through the co-op as having been landed on Westport Island, therefore there are no landings reported in Wiscasset. The annual landings are reported by the co-op to be 224,000 pounds in 2002 and 219,000 in 2003. There is a trap limit set in this region at 600 traps per boat although some boats do not set the maximum. Co-op members set approximately 7,500 traps in the area.
This fishery is a very important resource for the area and is the primary source of income for many families of the boat owners and, in many cases, sternmen employed by the boat owners. Boat owners must also purchase bait, fuel, traps, and marine and engine supplies to support their operation so their work supports those businesses as well.
Scallops. There is a very modest scallop fishery and they are only occasionally harvested.
Periwinkles. Reports of landings of periwinkles are voluntary, so the DMR has little information about this fishery. More research needs to be done to document this fishery, which thrives on rockweed.
Rockweed, Seaweed, and Eelgrass. Grasses grow generally in Wiscasset’s intertidal areas along rocky shorelines as they do throughout coastal Maine. Grasses are primary producers converting inorganic (e.g., phosphate and nitrate) nutrients into organic matter for grazers. They play an essential role in removing nutrients and trace metals and converting them into useable products for commercial and ecological use. By removing nutrients and metals (e.g., arsenic, copper, zinc) from the water column, they help maintain water quality. Grasses are also critically important in the ecosystem because they act as a nursery for crabs, lobster, shrimp, mussels, periwinkle, and many small and juvenile fish that use the grasses as shelter.
Rockweed is harvested periodically in the area and transported to processors where it is made into animal diet supplement, fertilizer, and a stabilizer in foods and cosmetics. It is also used locally in the transportation of lobster and bloodworms.
Finfish. There is no commercial fishing for finfish in the upper Sheepscot River. There are, however, many species of fish that either live in the Sheepscot or return to spawn.
Alewife. The alewife is an anadromous fish (one that returns from sea to spawn) that has enormous importance to the rivers throughout Maine. The Sheepscot River is not known to have a large population of spawning alewives. Among other baitfish, alewives attract striped bass and other predator species up the Sheepscot. They are a source of protein to birds, including osprey, eagles, and cormorants. They also carry the larvae of mussels.
Atlantic salmon. The Sheepscot River is designated by the state as one of the seven Atlantic salmon rivers and is a “Designated Population Segment” River for the endangered Atlantic Salmon. Efforts are underway by the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission to fund local conservation groups’ efforts to improve water quality and habitat for critical spawning runs. This program has been largely funded by the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association, whose efforts have been focused further upriver, on the West Branch of the Sheepscot. The restoration of the Atlantic salmon in the Sheepscot is, thus, a regional issue. The Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission at Maine Department of Marine Resources should be consulted for comments concerning management strategies.
Striped bass. There is recreational fishing for striped bass although they are not as abundant in the upper Sheepscot as they are in the lower Sheepscot. They pursue mackerel and other baitfish up the river in the middle to late summer season. The value of this recreational fish statewide is quite large -- estimates run into the tens of millions. There is an ever-growing resident population in the Sheepscot, and the future is promising for this fishery.