Conservation in Beaver Dam Heath, Berwick

This past fall, GWRLT received ownership of 115 acres to be known as Grants Meadow Conservation Area in Berwick, thanks to the donation of 113 acres from Carolyn and Wilfred (Bill) Bryan and 2 acres from the Town of Berwick as voted by its citizens. These parcels together with a Right of Way, also donated by the Bryans, will eventually provide parking, walking trails and public education on wetland habitats. These properties represent 14% of the largely undeveloped Beaver Dam Heath.

“Grants Meadow” labels a vaguely circled area centered on Beaver Dam Brook on a copy of the 1786 map of Kittery Commons. East of Diamond Hill Road between Old Sanford and Beech Ridge Road, this property was accurately surveyed in 1855, with the original plan still held by the Bryans. It appears to be the oldest known plan of any property in the heath, remaining in the Grant family name until 1890, when Joshua Grant passed it to his two daughters. Emma Grant Hussey received 4/5ths of the parcel. After her death, her husband Charles gave the land to Moses Worster, who in turn passed it on to Ruth Greason, Carolyn Bryan’s mother.


“We visited the area often during the 1970’s and 1980’s and enjoyed exploring the heath land on skis and snowshoes,” said Bill. “We feel especially strong ties to the past through this property, which has been passed down through family connections for over 250 years.”

For many years, the exact boundaries of the heath property remained elusive, as there are few distinguishing landmarks within the heath. Recent GPS capabilities have made navigation and surveying much easier. The Bryans note that aimless wandering can easily get one lost. “A great sense of isolation exists within the heath since none of the surrounding hills are visible from the interior, and none of the heath is visible from the surrounding hills,” according to Bill. The couple learned to find their way around by referencing particular trees, and by the size and shape of grassy clearings and minor topographical features. “On cloudy days, with no shadows to provide a sense of direction, it is easy to become disoriented, and hunters have become lost in the heath.” He noted that the boggy areas are a challenge to cross; interlaced alder branches bar the way, and sticky mud holes threaten any misstep. Also, the vegetation changes in subtle ways every year, so some landmarks become obscured, while some trees grow into major beacons.

During the 1970’s, many more trees grew in the central part of the property. “By the late 1980’s, the beavers had cut down most of these, which lay like jackstraws every which way, and were obstacles to travel,” said Bill. Several dry summers in the 1990’s killed other trees. By the end of the century, all of the fallen trees had disappeared into the bog, but the remnants of the drought-killed trees still remain as reminders of what used to be, only a few years before.

Bill explored the heath with state botanist Don Cameron in 2001 and expressed concern at the loss of so many trees. Cameron noted that change is normal in sensitive wetlands. As the two passed many young cedar saplings scattered within newly created grassland at the southern corner of the property, Cameron said that this tree is at the northern limit of its range in southern Maine, and its expansion into Maine wetlands is an indicator of global warming.

As a retired professional geologist and senior scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Bill can give a complete picture of the land’s history and formation. He notes that recent changes are trivial compared to what has occurred over the past 20,000 years. Starting at that time, the heath and the rest of coastal Maine were covered by several thousand feet of glacial ice. By about 12,000 years ago, the ice front had melted back to a line that follows the general location of Rte. 9. Further melting caused the edge of the ice to recede into the low hills west of Old Sanford Road, and the sea, rising rapidly from the melting ice, lapped at the foot of these hills. Millions of gallons of water per hour from melting ice poured from tunnels beneath the ice and from streams cascading down the crumbling ice front. These carried mud, sand, gravel and large blocks of ice into the sea. The sand and gravel spread out in the shallow sea as coalescing deltas that now form the broad flat surface of sand plain between Kennebunk and Sanford. One of these deltas spread east and south from the vicinity of the Beech Ridge/Old Sanford Road intersection and formed the eastern upland edge of the Grant property. The high ground between the heath and Rte. 9 is formed in part by the terminal moraine created when the ice front briefly stood along that line. As the ice thinned and melted away, the weight of the off-flowing water allowed the land to rise in response, causing the sea to retreat to close to its present level. Tundra conditions prevailed in the heath and the rest of coastal Maine until gradually the forest vegetation crept north.

The land was farmed extensively during the 18th and 19th centuries. The military leased the property during World War II to use as a bombing range. Non-explosive bombs were used, and many of these later appeared in area front yards, converted into planters and mailboxes. A major fire in the late 1940’s left peat burning underground for months, destroying most of the land’s agricultural values, and causing the land to subside. The beavers, which had been active prior to European settlement, reestablished and remained there until removed by wildlife officials for flooding adjacent roads in 1995. Today, three major dams can still be seen.

Bill concludes, “Conservation does not mean a return to some pre-existing ideal state for this property. The best use for this property is to allow plants, animals and the land to continue evolving in their own way.”