SALEM — Baker's Island is only three miles out to sea, but for all the luck the National Park Service is having getting out there, it may as well be the lost continent of Atlantis.
It has been almost six years since the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Essex National Heritage Commission the new owners of the light station on Baker's Island, the first step in making the 10-acre historic site on the island's rocky tip accessible to the public.
But that designation was challenged by summer residents, whose homes occupy most of the 55-acre island and who submitted a competing proposal of their own. In 2006, a federal judge tossed out their lawsuit.
Now, a second legal challenge by an islander has delayed the U.S. Coast Guard's cleanup of the lighthouse site, which has contaminated soil from lead paint that flaked off lighthouse buildings over the years.
The legal action challenges approvals granted by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The case currently sits in Essex Superior Court, but no trial date has been set, according to an attorney for Robert Leavens, the Baker's Island resident who filed the lawsuit.
Against this backdrop, there has been some progress.
A few days before Christmas, the National Park Service received word it has been awarded a $250,000 federal transportation grant.
"This is crucial funding," said Emily Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. "It's going to allow us to buy a boat that will take tours ... out to Baker's Island."
The park service, which is working with the local heritage commission, plans to buy a landing craft, which will carry a dozen or more tourists and a park ranger. Under the current plan, passengers will walk down a bow ramp and step onto the rocky shore.
"It's definitely going to be like an adventure tour," Murphy said.
There is a private pier on the island, but that is for the use of residents, and it does not appear the park service or Essex National Heritage Commission plan to ask for permission to use it. Relations between some island residents and mainland officials have been strained since a delegation scouting the lighthouse site several years ago, a group that included former Mayor Stanley Usovicz, was ordered off the island.
"We're not interested in using their pier," said Annie Harris, executive director of the Essex National Heritage Commission.
Harris stressed that only small groups will visit the light station and will not interfere with island life. She said they plan to take 12 to 18 people at a time and will be able to land only in calm seas.
"I know there's a lot of interest in Baker's Island, but at no point are there going to be hordes of people going out," she said.
Harris said she is pleased to hear about the federal funds for a boat but is not sure when public tours will begin.
"We have a ways to go," she said. "It's nice to hear they have a grant, but I don't know if that will translate into transportation in the next year or so. I really don't know. You have to ask the park service."
Patricia Trap, superintendent of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, said she expects it will take awhile to work out funding details and buy a boat. She was asked — legal issues aside — if it will get done in time for tourists to go out this summer.
"I would say that is highly unlikely," she said.
At the same time, though, Trap said she is "thrilled" by the funding announcement and what it eventually will mean for the country's first national historic site. It will allow them, she said, to do a better job telling the story of a major seaport and the role played by its historic light station. It will give visitors a real sense of what it was like for merchant ships to enter Salem Harbor centuries ago, and it will provide a better opportunity to discuss current issues, like ocean stewardship and climate change.
"To me this is such an amazing opportunity to really allow people to come into the Salem Maritime site and provide this rich historical experience," Trap said.