Throughout Maine, there are pockets of wilderness where nature is given free rein. The trees grow old and tall. The moss grows thick. And rare plants and animals find safe haven.
This year, the Maine Ecological Reserve System, owned by the state, will turn 20 years old. Covering more than 90,000 acres in parcels scattered throughout Maine, its purpose is to conserve the state’s biodiversity while serving as benchmarks for long-term research.
“Maine’s ecological reserves include some of the state’s most stunning and ecologically important places, including the Bigelow Range, Big Spencer Mountain, the Great Heath and the Cutler Coast,” said Andy Cutko, director of Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands. “The reserves support old growth forests, alpine summits, vast peatlands and vital habitat for rare plants and animals. For an ecologist, you’re like a kid in a candy store — there’s no more interesting place to explore.”
Located on 17 different public land units, the reserves are managed by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, with the Maine Natural Areas Program overseeing the long-term ecological monitoring plan.
At a time when the world’s climate is changing at an unprecedented speed, these lands may help inform scientists about how Maine’s landscape is being impacted by rising temperatures and more extreme weather events.
“The University of Maine recently analyzed the long-term monitoring data and found that the [ecological] reserves truly are different – most notably in providing old forest habitat that is uncommon on managed lands – bigger, older trees and valuable dead trees and downed wood that are important for wildlife,” Cukto said.
The creation of the Maine Ecological Reserve System was enabled by the Maine Legislature in 2000. The law outlines a hands-off approach to management. It specifies that timber harvesting, commercial mining and sand and gravel excavation are not permitted on these conserved lands. Construction of any kind is also extremely limited, though low-impact forms of recreation such as hiking, back-country camping and paddling is often allowed.
This legislation was the result of a multi-year inventory and assessment project coordinated by the Maine Forest Biodiversity Project, which involved almost 100 participants from all walks of life. Forestland owners, conservationists, scientists, educators and government officials all banded together for the project.
“It was an idea that was pretty widely accepted as something we needed in the state,” said Janet McMahon, an ecologist who was instrumental in the project. “Back in the 90s, there was a huge push for the state to look at biodiversity.”
McMahon’s graduate thesis for the University of Maine was to develop a map of the biophysical regions of Maine, which was used to select areas that would become Maine ecological reserves. She also wrote two reports that were used to provide a scientific basis for the system.
“I think as the climate changes, [the reserves] are going to be very informative,” McMahon said. “I think we’ll get a sense — and this is just my guess — that stands that have not been harvested as heavily or frequently are going to be more resilient, support more species over time and you’ll have fewer invasive species coming in.”
The reserves range in size from 775 acres at Wassataquoik Stream in T3 R7 WELS to more than 11,000 acres at Nahmakanta in Rainbow Township.
Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.
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