As Jonathan LaBonte talks about the Androscoggin River region, he frequently gets up from his chair to pull a map from some corner of his Lewiston office. After piling maps on his desk, many of them mounted on thick Styrofoam, LaBonte becomes partially blocked from view. Looking over the mound, he admits, "I love maps."
He should. His work depends on his intimate knowledge of the local landscape and uncovering its potential. When LaBonte, 28, became executive director of Androscoggin Land Trust in April 2008, he had been serving as president of the board for three years. Even in that volunteer position, he was bringing an active, aggressive energy to the organization. Prior to LaBonte's tenure, the 20-year-old land trust had slipped into a lull after its previous director resigned in 2003 and no one replaced her.
Since 2005, however, the trust has conserved 1,120 more acres, bringing its total to 3,600 acres.
As director, LaBonte has put into place a strong, and in many ways, novel plan of action and hasn't minded stepping on the occasional toe to see it through. Not only is LaBonte working to protect land from development, he is also promoting the Androscoggin River — long dismissed as an industrial dump — as an economic catalyst for 19 riverside communities from Canton to Durham.
"Every land trust in Maine is doing good work," LaBonte says. "But we're purposefully trying to be different. We think this region needs a different approach. We sit on a river that hasn't been embraced as an environmental or recreational resource."
LaBonte sees opportunity not just in the river but also in the whole watershed, both as a tourist attraction and a desirable place to live. That vision, though, takes regional cooperation, an issue dear to LaBonte, and one that motivated him to run last year and win a seat on the county commission. He argues that the only effective way to achieve greater economic viability and ecological sustainability in Maine is to work broadly, rather than letting individual towns make provincial decisions. And the river offers the perfect vehicle to achieve this type of collaboration. For instance, riverside towns can work together to form linked trails, rather than building a piece here and a piece there.
LaBonte started his career in pulp and paper engineering as a student at University of Maine, but says he was drawn away from engineering work and more to community development where he could have a bigger impact. Prior to the land trust, he worked for the Maine Turnpike Authority.
During his time with the trust, LaBonte has built up a network of relationships, believing that greater community involvement is critical to his organization's success. Perhaps the most fruitful relationship has been with the Maine Department of Conservation, which the trust persuaded to develop the Riverlands State Park on 2,588 acres of state land north of Lewiston, which includes eight miles along the Androscoggin River and will be Maine's first new state park in more than 25 years.
LaBonte has made a point of creating other meaningful partnerships, too, which helps the trust share in funding and services. For instance, the trust has merged with the local trail organization. And it is also trying to become more service oriented, such as offering the town of Lisbon help with its greenways plan in exchange for conserving a town-owned river island.
Part of LaBonte's strategy also includes implementing sustainable forestry in some of the trust's conserved land in Canton and Jay, which will bring in timber revenue to help the trust achieve its goals of making the river a centerpiece to the region.
"People have been waiting to hear a positive story about the river," LaBonte says. "The best way to improve the river is to get people using it, walking next to it or paddling in it."