Razorbills – photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region
Razorbills – photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region
No other state, outside of Alaska, has so many wild offshore islands as Maine. It can be easy to forget how unusual the coast of Maine really is. It's a craggy, wild coast with over 3,000 islands, many of them uninhabited, along 3,500 miles of coastline. Most of the wildest islands are owned by the public. And it's all right there, right out the window. Ours.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chose Rockland to became the gateway to some of the wildest when they located the headquarters of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex at 9 Water Street in Rockland's South End, buying the building that used to house MBNA's day-care center. The staff moved into the new headquarters in September.
The Maine Coastal Islands NWR complex, which includes island refuges that were established between 1972 and 1980, contains more than 50 offshore islands and four coastal parcels and includes five national wildlife refuges - Petit Manan, Cross Island, Franklin Island, Seal Island and Pond Island.

Seal, Franklin and Pond islands are single-island refuges. Cross Island refuge is made up of six islands, while Petit Manan refuge includes 41 islands and four mainland properties, including Petit Manan Point, Sawyers Marsh, Gouldsboro Bay and Corea Heath.

Matinicus Rock, Petit Manan and Two Bush islands are among the islands that have working lighthouses.

All totaled, the refuge complex includes over 8,000 acres of diverse coastal Maine habitats including forested and bald offshore islands, salt marshes, open fields, and spruce and fir forests.

Due to budget limitations, Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Milford, currently has no staff and is also being managed by Maine Coastal Islands NWR Complex staff.

The primary focus of the Maine Coastal Islands NWR Complex is restoring and managing colonies of nesting seabirds. The islands provide habitat for common, Arctic, and endangered roseate terns; Atlantic puffins; razorbills; black guillemots; Leach's storm-petrels and others. Over the past 25 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has worked to reverse the decline in these birds' populations and as a result of the conservation efforts many species have returned to islands where they historically nested.

Unlike national parks, where people come first, National Wildlife Refuges are primarily to protect wildlife habitat. People come second, so after the seabirds have finished nesting and rearing their young, most of the islands are open to the public.

Out of its headquarters in Rockland's South End, the Maine Coastal Islands NWR Complex oversees all the refuges under its control, including the scientific research, island maintenance, lighthouse management, and education outreach.

The South End building, which was a daycare center, will be renovated into office space by the end of next summer. In the future, the first floor will be converted into a visitor and information center on Maine seabirds, the island refuges, and the research and conservation efforts under way on the islands. The existing playground will likely be converted into an interactive model of a nesting seabird island, where children can learn about island wildlife and their habitats.

The displays and education component will come in the future as funds allow, said Beth Goettel, the Maine Coastal Islands NWR manager.

Exhibits and education outreach will be supported in part by the Friends of Maine Seabird Islands, a nonprofit volunteer group. The Friends group plans to raise private money for environmental education programs and will establish a bookstore in the visitor center in the future. The Friends intend to work in cooperation with the Maine Lighthouse Museum and the Maine Audubon Project Puffin Center, both located nearby, to firmly establish Rockland as the gateway to the wild coastal islands.

For information about volunteering for the Friends of Maine Seabird Islands, go to www. maineseabirds.org.