Preserving the Most Beautiful Places in the World

A Conversation with Carl Carlson of the Butler Conservation Fund

Cobscook Shores. Photo by Chris Shane

Many people are intensely curious to know more about Gilbert Butler, the noted environmental philanthropist. His Butler Conservation Fund (BCF) buys extensive, beautiful parcels of land around the United States and South America. On these lands, he and his team create multi-use recreational trails and nature parks for outdoor education and public use. Both the park areas and their associated programming encourage people to get outside and be active.

Mr. Butler does not like to be personally promoted or written about. He always wants the focus to be on the conservation projects, not on himself. When I talked recently to one of his close associates, Carl Carlson—Director of Conservation Infrastructure with BCF—I asked about Mr. Butler’s motivations and vision. With a smile, Carl described the following common exchange: Every time somebody asks him, “Well, why are you doing this?” He just looks at them and says, “Are you crazy? Why wouldn’t I do this? Look at it. It’s so great!” My conversation with Carl helped me see the truth of that view.

Carl Carlson is a landscape architect with what he calls his dream job. He helps bring BCF’s ambitious plans into reality, bringing his own vision and experience to bear on each carefully developed project. I believe it is a gift to have such vision.

To all who help preserve the beauty of Maine and make it accessible for everyone to enjoy, thank you.


Mary:

How are the Butler Conservation Fund’s Maine projects going?

Gilbert Butler, an avid sea kayaker, paddles in Alaska’s Glacier Bay. Photo by BCF Board Member Dana Beach

Carl:

Well, when we started both projects in Maine, it was not necessarily very welcoming because people were worried about what we were going to be doing there.

But now that we’re opening—particularly in Millinocket, now that we’re open—people are just in love with it. It’s wonderful to see how many people are excited about what we’re doing, how many people are showing up. So, I’m glad that we can have a positive impact on the community there.

Each project is unique, and they’ve each got their own wonderful qualities. There is not much better than a fall bike ride up the east banks of Penobscot, with the changing colors of the leaves. Or to go skiing on a cold winter day, it’s terrific. And to spend a summer afternoon on the coast of Cobscook Bay, you’ll fall in love with it. They’re all really wonderful in their own ways.

Mary:

Mr. Butler could have done anything. How did he choose this particular idea to pursue—to change the landscape of the world through conservation? He’s all over the world.

Carl:

He is all over the world, yes. We’re not only doing work in Maine. I’d say the majority of our work, at least from a dollar perspective, is in Maine. But I think that primarily comes from his history with Maine.

His mother bought a house on Mount Desert Island when he was a kid. He had been visiting Maine in the summer for about 75 years. So, he’s always loved being up there, with the Maine woods and the coast of Maine. He said these are the places he wants to give back to because he spends so much time there. He just loves the natural beauty of Maine.

And when I started this job, he told me the most important things that he looks for in any project is that it has to be the most beautiful place in the world.

Any place that he spends a lot of time in, he wants to give back to, and he wants to support it with some sort of project. That’s why we’ve got projects in various places around the world. They’re all places that he likes to go on a regular basis. And by far, he spends more time in Maine than any of those places, which probably explains why we’re spending so much money in Maine.

Mary:

Any new projects that are coming up for Maine?

Carl:

The newest project that we’ve got right now—it just recently opened—is a hiking trail along the Seboeis River, up near Shin Pond [in Penobscot County]. It’s almost six miles of hiking trail. It actually starts at the Grand Lake Road and goes south along the Seboeis River, crosses Shin Brook, and ends almost at the Philpott Bridge on a national monument land there. But most of the trail is on our property. We just finished construction on that trail in November.

So, it’s fresh and new, and it’s really beautiful. And at the intersection of the road and the trail, we’re putting a parking lot with a kiosk, campsites, picnic sites, and bathrooms. That will be open probably next summer.

Mary:

Are the projects funding themselves once they’re up and running?

Carl:

Yes. The way we have it set up is that we’ve got a fairly sizable endowment, and each project gets its own allocation from that endowment to maintain itself in perpetuity. So, we don’t have to worry about how we are going to support this project long term.

Mary:

What do you think motivates him to be so generous in this area?

Carl:

It’s just his nature. He wants to see the money that he made go towards good causes, and he wants to have a lasting legacy. That’s really what’s most important to him.

There are not many people who have the kind of money he’s got who are doing the sorts of things that he’s doing. He’s committing to essentially giving away most of his money. He wants to provide something for future generations. It’s getting people out on the land. It’s preserving the natural beauty long term, and it’s encouraging outdoor aerobic recreation—exercise that’s good for your mind and your body. There’s no one reason why he’s doing this, but it’s a lot of reasons that coalesce.

Mary:

How long have you been working with Mr. Butler? What is your job like?

Carl:

I’ve been working with him for almost five years now. This job is a dream, for a landscape architect like myself. I’m involved with projects that are protecting the environment and encouraging people to get out and use it. And I’m an outdoors person myself. I love to go hiking, biking, kayaking, skiing. So, I feel very lucky that I get to be involved with those activities for work.

Mary:

In safe times, are there activities scheduled on the lands preserved by BCF?

Carl:

We do have the outdoor education programs in both locations [Millinocket and Lubec] that are run for school-aged kids. It’s fourth grade through high school, roughly. We provide coaches and equipment, and we teach kids how to mountain bike, ski, and kayak. It’s all provided at no cost to the schools.

In South Carolina, we’ve invited the teachers, firefighters, police officers, and the Lion’s Club for tours, time on bikes or in kayaks, and hikes to enjoy the outside. We want to do that in Maine, too, but we’re a little sidetracked by COVID, unfortunately.

Mary:

Do you have places that allow for people who may have some handicaps?

Penobscot River Trails property. Photo by Carey Kish.

Carl:

Yes. All of the trails at the Penobscot River Trails are paved in the very fine crushed dust surface, which is easy to walk on. And it’s easy for pushing a wheelchair, if needed.

We’ve got a short little loop right by the visitor center in Penobscot River Trails that is popular. People are able to get out, get a view of the river, and enjoy a walk in the woods. It’s easy walking.

I think of my father. He’s disabled, and he can’t walk easily or far. I could get him out in a wheelchair, and I could push him around there, and he’d be able to see and enjoy it. It’s not 100 percent accessible everywhere, but there are portions of it that are. We’re glad to offer that as an option for folks.

Mary:

Are you looking at other properties in Maine?

Carl:

We’re always looking. Anything that we do at this point will be likely some sort of an addition to an existing project rather than a full, huge new project. And that’s only because of the cost of a whole new facility is really expensive. I know we spent $26 million in Millinocket and our Penobscot River Trails property. And you can’t do that too many times before your endowment is depleted.

We’re about $11 million in Lubec and Cobscook Shores, so that’s a lot of money in one state. And then we’ve also got projects and partnerships in South Carolina, New York, New Mexico, Utah, and South America.

Mary:

Does Mr. Butler have private businesses right now?

Carl:

No, he has sold his private businesses about 10 years ago or so. He used to own companies that people know. He owned Tractor Supply at one point, for example. But they’re all sold.

Mary:

Carl, as Mr. Butler’s right-hand man, do you have a project you personally wish he would do or that you have a vision for?

Carl:

That’s a good question. I’m so busy with what I’ve got, I don’t know if I could take on more. I don’t know. We’re doing such great stuff.

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