“Seeing the silver linings when the times are stormy”
“Things were pretty bad,” says Richard B. Anderson, his voice crackling over the phone. “The Presumpscot River was a sewer, and so were the Androscoggin and the Kennebec and the Penobscot. . . The only one that wasn’t too bad was the Saco.”
He is recalling the late ´60s and early ´70s, when Maine was not, as the old state slogan says, “The Way Life Should
Be.” Environmental protection legislation was starting to pass nationwide, inspired by the work of Rachel Carson (1907–1964), but Maine was not yet doing enough. As a young man at the time, Anderson saw a pressing need for pollution regulation in Maine. He decided it was time for him to get serious and help to bring about the needed changes.
Anderson was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, and growing up, he and his family would make the trek each summer to their camp in Washington, Maine. It was there, exploring the wilderness and enjoying countless hours fishing, that he developed his deep appreciation for the outdoors.
For college, Anderson moved to Maine and earned a degree in Wildlife Conservation from the University of Maine at Orono. His summer and part-time jobs with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife led to a full-time job as the southern Maine assistant regional biologist. He started in that position the day after his graduation in 1957.
Around 1965, he and others formed the State Biologists Association, an early, high-profile environmental organization. “We were this sort of radical environmental organization in those days,” Anderson says. The members—a collective of more than 50 like-minded biologists from across the state—were working to raise awareness of environmental pollution and to fight for change. As Anderson and his colleagues saw all too clearly, Maine’s precious natural resources of air, land, and water were being squandered and degraded.
So, when in the early ’70s he was approached by then-1st district Representative for Maine, Peter Kyros, for guidance concerning what environmental issues Maine was facing, Anderson thought that a quick canoe trip down the Presumpscot would get the point across.
Recounting his canoe expedition in an oral history conducted for Bates College, Anderson says, “Peter described it as like being in what he thought what hell might be like because the dump was right on the shore of the river, and the rubbish was burning, and this was a combination dump between S.D. Warren [a paper mill] and Westbrook. They bulldozed the stuff out towards the river and then burned it, and so it was smoking and smoldering with little flames here and there, and it kind of rolled down over the bank and hit the river. . . The river was just nothing but sewage, and we’re paddling up through it, and Peter and I were both sick by the time we got back. It was really bad.”
From those days to the present, Anderson has dedicated his life to promoting the conservation of Maine’s natural environment. In 1969 he left the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and became Maine Audubon Society’s associate director for conservation and later the society’s executive director. At Audubon, he was a font of energy, writes historian Herb Adams: “He established a recycling program with the Salvation Army, argued for mandatory beverage-container deposits, presented a 10-week course on sewer overflow problems in Portland’s Back Cove, and spoke out against state pheasant raise-and-release programs as a waste of money (most died of exposure).” Anderson pursued his mission with tireless enthusiasm.
Giving just several other examples, Adams says that in 1972, “Anderson convinced the state to rent Maine Audubon a run-down hot dog stand at the edge of Scarborough Marsh, which he soon converted into the nature center that is still one of the organization’s busiest facilities. In his spare time Anderson chaired the Maine Mining Commission and hosted the popular public TV program Upcountry, celebrating the great Maine outdoors. Anderson also extended Maine Audubon’s hand of cooperation to old adversaries by working with S. D. Warren Company to improve the environmental conditions in the Presumpscot River estuary.”
Working with others—embracing the team approach—is an Anderson hallmark. He was on the board of Maine’s Environmental Improvement Commission, later renamed the Board of Environmental Protection. This
group made substantial contributions and worked closely with lawmakers. According to the Department of Environmental Protection’s website, “The Board of Environmental Protection is a citizen’s board of seven members nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Legislature that
performs major substantive rulemaking, makes decisions on select permit applications and appeals of Commissioner licensing and enforcement actions, and provides a forum for public participation in department decisions.”
Anderson’s contributions to Maine’s environmental protection include successfully lobbying for the banning of DDT within Maine and, as Herb Adams mentions, battling for public opinion in the fight for the Maine’s Beverage Container Redemption Program, otherwise known as the “Bottle Bill.” From the fall of 1976 to the passage of the bill on June 1, 1978, he helped to counter and overcome a major media campaign that urged voters to oppose the bottle bill.
However, Anderson states that his crowning achievement was the Land for Maine’s Future Program. “I love land protection. Most of the projects I worked on are about making land protected and open to the public forever. I was one of the key people in putting together a group of people that got the “Land for Maine’s Future” enacted into law. That’s the best piece of land protection legislation that we have in Maine.”
During his time as the Commissioner for the Maine Department of Conservation, Anderson put together an outdoor recreation commission of 25 key figures from all over the state. They developed legislation that became a 50-million-dollar bond issue for the state to buy land, titled, “The Land for Maine’s Future.” The bond has been continuously protected and renewed in referendums, proving its importance to the people of Maine has not wavered over the years.
After his time as State Conservation Commissioner ended, Anderson was suddenly struck with the idea of a hiking trail that spanned the Appalachian Mountains—but that followed the range as it would have been arranged on the supercontinent Pangaea. After the idea came to him while driving through Falmouth, Anderson reached out to Don Hudson, a notable environmental luminary and close friend of over 30 years. Anderson urged Hudson to meet him for breakfast the next day, and on a Saturday morning in October of 1993, they began working together on what would become the International Appalachian Trail (IAT). It is an extension of the Appalachian Trail which tracks across multiple continents, beginning on Mount Katahdin in Maine and ending in Morocco.
The success in establishing the trail, says Hudson, is a testament to Anderson’s character. “I can say without a doubt that working with Dick and many others on the development of the IAT has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life,” Hudson continues. “I can easily imagine that had the project been led by anyone other than Dick, who always sees the silver linings when the times are stormy, I would have easily drifted away from it.”
Despite restrictions imposed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Anderson says that board operations for overseeing the International Appalachian Trail have not been deterred.
“We have board meetings with people all around the North Atlantic, and we had an administrative committee meeting yesterday. I was thinking afterwards that everybody liked it [virtual],” he says with a laugh. “Maybe we should just keep doing it [that way] because nobody had to drive to get to the meeting!”
Anderson has accomplished and is still accomplishing great work in his lifetime. In 2014, for his 80th birthday, the Maine section of the International Appalachian Trail was named the Richard B. Anderson Trail, in recognition of his role in the IAT and the incalculable number of positive changes he has made for the environment and for the people of Maine.
Despite receiving numerous awards and accolades, Anderson remains humble, and he is not one to claim full credit. For every project he headed, he makes sure to include the names of the other people involved. “I always was able to find great people to work with,” says Anderson. “I don’t know whether it was me or luck . . . but I found a lot of great people to work with in my life. I was fortunate to attract great people to work with and get things done.”
Anderson’s modesty and quickness to sing the praises of others is a quality his many friends greatly respect and admire about him. “Dick has made an impact on Planet Earth, no question about it,” shares Elizabeth Swain, close friend and manager at POWER Engineers. “His International Appalachian Trail has connected people, trail networks, and continents. It is a brilliant conception that he brought to life through imagination, years of hard work, and his charismatic personality that pulls people into his orbit to accomplish the impossible. He is deeply loved by so many, most of whom he mentored and helped shape who they became.”
Other friends agree. “It’s one thing to be impressed by his countless accomplishments through a lifetime of work,” says Don Hudson, “but the most impressive aspect of Dick’s character is the way that he holds others in his heart and mind. Sure, Dick was instrumental in re-inventing the Maine Audubon Society, in the establishment of the Land for Maine’s Future, and in founding the International Appalachian Trail. However, the most impressive thing about Dick is his quality of genuine, non-judgmental, and caring friendship.”
Recalling how they first became friends, Hudson shares a revealing anecdote, showing how Anderson could forge bonds and bring out the best in people. Hudson says that in the late ´80s, Anderson was attempting to re-introduce caribou to Maine, and he had heard that Hudson was well-versed in alpine vegetation, a primary food source for caribou. Anderson had decided to reach out to see if Hudson wanted to join him on a mountain excursion. “Dick spoke with me as if he had known me for 50 years,” says Hudson. “How could I say no?”