The recently announced Orbeton Stream project that conserves 5,774 acres in Madrid Township represents a victory for Maine on many levels. The forests and waters of these slopes foster the region’s core fish and wildlife populations and essential stands of northern mixed-wood tree species. As such, these lands exemplify the very heart of the forest values we expect and depend upon for jobs, recreation and our way of life.
After identifying the importance of these lands at a time when few others were taking notice, The Wilderness Society and Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust worked together over the past nine years toward this important conservation outcome. In 2006, I was fortunate enough to author an ecological study of the High Peaks region, including this Orbeton Stream parcel, as an independent consultant for the Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust, which submitted the initial application for funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy program in 2010. After that, the Trust for Public Land was invited to the project for its conservation real estate expertise.
The Wilderness Society helped fund that initial study and several years later hired me to its office in Maine to continue working on behalf of this large, forested landscape that is so vital to jobs, tourism, hunting, fishing and conservation of Maine’s wildlife.
The Orbeton Stream project makes sense as a means of conserving treasured forest lands in the face of development pressures. But the project also makes abundant good sense in light of a changing climate that will require our trees and wildlife to adapt and change in the coming years and decades.
That adaptation and change will occur best in landscapes that capture the entire elevation range from valleys along the Sandy River to the alpine ridges and summits supporting plants and animals more typically found in arctic tundra or boreal forests of Canada. This conservation project is right in between those two extremes and includes the Orbeton Stream itself, which supports breeding Atlantic Salmon and exemplary native brook trout populations.
The surrounding watershed area is home to moose, bear, deer, grouse, pine marten and multiple species of migratory songbirds that arrive from the tropics each year to breed. As the “middle zone” of this mountain landscape, this area also serves as connective habitat that will be needed to support a variety of adaptation mechanisms to climate change. Many of these adaptation mechanisms will require the forest habitat as a long-term refuge and as a connector to other parts of the mountain landscape and to the greater forests spanning multiple states and Canadian provinces.
At The Wilderness Society, we recognize the need for a broad array of forest management options that will be required to conserve all the values we expect from our forests and waters. We call this a “portfolio approach” to conservation. Those options also are needed to maximize the chances for our forests and wildlife to adapt and transition as smoothly as possible to habitat disruptions caused by climate change.
The first step is to maintain “forest as forest” as the Orbeton Stream project does. Linkletter Timberlands, which owns the property, sold a conservation easement to the state of Maine. The easement protects the land from development and allows for a range of forest management and use options benefitting many human needs.
Under a portfolio approach to conservation in an era of climate change, we will need a range of land management tools, including active intervention and, just as importantly, areas where the management approach is in fact no management — where forests change at their own pace.
As with a financial portfolio managed to spread risk across a diversified array of investment strategies, a diverse conservation management portfolio also provides a range of strategies to conserve assets and assist adaptation in an uncertain future. The High Peaks landscape and this particular conservation project are valuable assets that provide returns to all of us today. Through protection from conversion, we expect these lands to be a valuable asset for generations to come.
The Wilderness Society thanks the project partners on the Orbeton Stream project, the easement funders, and the diverse stakeholders who collaborated and found common ground on the project. Most of all, we congratulate the people of Maine for this important step in conserving Maine’s natural treasures.
Peter McKinley, Ph.D., is climate adaptation lead ecologist at The Wilderness Society in Hallowell. He has worked in ecological research and conservation for 25 years.