Even before we were married in York Harbor in 1996, my husband and I had fallen in love with Maine. Our jobs kept us residing away for the next 20 years but whenever we both had two days off in a row we’d run off to the Maine coast, often camping with our dog and hiking the vast preserves.
When we had the opportunity to move here, we chose a modest home in Portland for the dog-friendly beaches and trails. When COVID-19 hit, Mayor Baxter Woods became a refuge in more ways than one. A thoughtful community of dog walkers there greeted us every morning. We checked in on one another and picked up litter. And we truly love the woods: the sparkling wonderland of the first snow, the lush green moss on fallen trees after it melts, the blessed shade and dappled sunlight in the height of summer and the sweater-weather strolls of autumn. We’ve held still and hushed for all manner of wildlife and birds there. They seem as unphased by our dogs as any other animal.
Then, three years ago, some folks in positions of power decided that this urban oasis was far more valuable as a backyard to luxury condos. The development of these enormous buildings, within a few yards of the boundary of the woods, coincided with some “forest management” that I can only imagine would have Percival Baxter rolling in his grave.
Governor Baxter, a dog lover known to bring his Irish setters to the Statehouse with him, donated the woods to the people of Portland, named them after his father and specified they be kept in their natural state. Since the condo development began, non-native trees have been planted, logging and chipping of trees is happening, sanding and salting of trails is evident, repetitive and misleading signage has been anchored to tree roots with drilled rebar and, worst of all, a push to ban off-leash dogs has resulted in a claim that dogs somehow threaten “migrating ground-nesting birds.” Many people spoke at City Council meetings in support of even a few off-leash hours year round, to no avail. Off-leash dogs are now banned from Baxter Woods during the months of June and July.
Anyone who struggles with heat or constant sun exposure finds it a hardship to properly socialize and exercise our pets in the summer months. This summer I occasionally sought the cool shade of the woods. As unnatural as it felt to leash my dog in our favorite stomping grounds, what we found there was far more unnatural. The cacophony of tree felling and mulching frightened my dog – and we were at the other end of the park. The resulting detritus of cut logs, blond wood chips and deep tire ruts has left the tranquil woods looking bludgeoned and butchered. How can this setting be considered a sanctuary for birds? How can anyone claim that it heeds Percival Baxter’s deed? Why was this work being done during the peak rate period for contracted arborists? And why now, when those trees have had neon spray painted markings since last fall?
I asked these questions in a letter to the mayor, Parks Director Ethan Hipple and City Arborist Jeff Tarling. The mayor did not reply. The responses from Hipple and Tarling made attempts to deflect with talk of hemlock blight and trees that were an “imminent hazard.” Neither explained why this work needed to be done during “ground-nesting birds’ migration season.”
They tell us that studies are being done on the impact of dogs on birds in Baxter Woods. Well, they tell us a lot of things. The thing I know to be true is that the friendly dogs of Baxter Woods aren’t bothering anyone, except for maybe the condo owners. The recent activity in Baxter Woods proves to me that the off-leash ban is unjustified and unjust.