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Diverse, Resilient, Intact: The Unique Nature of Maine’s North Woods

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Habitat magazine.

Look up at night and you see a sky filled with stars and planets, many melting into the expansive Milky Way above. Look down at Maine from the sky, and you see a massive dark spot, one of very few remaining on the night sky map.

Maine’s dark spot is larger than any other in the eastern U.S. – larger than the Great Lakes, the Adirondacks, or the Everglades. While the North Woods is by no means untouched, with vibrant communities, active recreation opportunities, and a vigorous forest products industry, it nonetheless has the lowest “human footprint” score (defined by the Wildlife Conservation Society as the “most wild and least influenced” by people) across all of the Northern Appalachian Region.

Graphic depicting human footprint and development in MaineFrom within this dark spot rise Maine’s 14 highest peaks (all over 4,000 feet, including Mount Katahdin). Much of the state’s five million acres of wetlands, 6,000 lakes and ponds, and countless streams are here, too. It holds the headwaters of all five of Maine’s largest rivers: the Androscoggin, the Kennebec, the St. John, the Penobscot, and the St. Croix. It hosts the entirety of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

Spanning over the northern and eastern two-thirds of the state, Maine’s North Woods comprises around 11 million acres of largely unbroken forestland. This makes it the heart and soul of the Northern Appalachian/Acadian Forest – the largest intact temperate forest in North America, and perhaps the world. It is a myriad puzzle of ecosystems across a climate gradient as diverse as all of Europe, a gem akin to some of the most important remaining intact tropical forests of the southern hemisphere.

What does this diversity look like? Let’s start with the plants. Hardwood forests are full of sugar maples (think maple syrup) and yellow birch (think hardwood flooring) reaching skyward from nutrient-rich, well-drained soil; boreal spruce-fir forests (think lumber and paper) line the cool, rocky coastline and damp northern flats; ribbed fens and bogs (think peat moss) brim with colorful orchids and insect-eating plants; freshwater marshes (think ducks) and floodplain forests fill with species that like to get their feet wet; and alpine tundra hosts only the hardiest plants, bending in the wind and under the weight of rime and snow.

All this landscape and plant diversity in turn creates a mosaic of habitats for the many species of wildlife that call Maine’s North Woods home. The largest moose population in the lower 48 states roams here, as does the nation’s largest population of Canada Lynx and its second largest population of Common Loons (after Minnesota). Maine’s North Woods is the only place in the east to host a full complement of predators, from coyotes to weasels. In spring and summer, it becomes a veritable “baby bird factory” for many of our resident and migratory songbirds, making it the largest globally significant Important Bird Area in the continental U.S.

Imagine you are a Black Bear with two cubs trying to make a go of it in Maine. Each individual bear has a home range of about 19,000 forested acres, which it needs to find the food, water, shelter, and den sites for its survival. Where would you prefer to live? In the forest patches of southern Maine that are interspersed with houses, stores, office buildings, and wide, paved roads with lots of traffic? Or in the dark spot on the night sky map?

A Wood Turtle crosses a road.

If you prefer cats to bears, then imagine you’re a bobcat. Now you only need about 6,000 acres for a home range…but if you want to find a mate – ideally within a big enough population so you can find the best match, with good genetic diversity and strong character – you will require hundreds of thousands of acres. Even smaller mammals, like River Otters, travel long distances. Each one typically uses 15-30 linear miles of waterways to search for their prey. Wood Turtles will move up to six miles along a river, and 500 feet from shore, to find their food and resting and nesting spots.

Just like humans, who need to travel between home, work, school, the garden or the grocer, restaurants, stores, and more to find food, water, shelter, and companionship, other animals need to move, too. Fish such as Brook Trout and Atlantic Salmon need to move up, down, and between streams and ponds to find spawning habitat, feeding habitat, nursery areas, deep water refuge pools, and cold water summer refuge reaches. Moose, bear, bobcat, mink, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Wood Turtles, and Wood Frogs all need to move between summer and winter habitat, and in search of feeding, watering, and denning, nesting, and resting habitat. Up to 85 percent of vertebrates use riparian habitat, the area adjacent to waterways, as both living and travel corridors.

We are lucky here in Maine. We still have a relatively intact and healthy forest landscape. That’s why most of our native plant and wildlife species still call Maine home (we are missing wolves and Woodland Caribou). It’s why we still have wide-ranging mammals and uncommon and specialized species like the Furbish Lousewort and Bog Lemming. It is why we are the only state with the abundant clean, cold water needed to support the last vestiges of wild Brook Trout, Arctic Charr, and Atlantic Salmon. It’s why we still have Common Loons on almost every lake.

Common Loon and chick
A Common Loon and chick.

Maine is different from most other places in the east, where the list of missing or seriously depleted wildlife populations is long, and where habitat restoration – rather than habitat conservation and stewardship – is the norm.

It is the largely unfragmented, undeveloped nature of our landscape that creates such invaluable habitat connectivity and biodiversity. Western and far northern Maine have been identified by the Staying Connected Initiative as an internationally significant wildlife corridor, and much of the North Woods has been identified as a highly resilient landscape by The Nature Conservancy. Because of its geographical variation and connectedness, the area will continue to support high biological diversity – in spite of changes brought about by a rapidly warming world.

But because it’s our backyard, it can be easy to forget how special it is. As stewards of Maine’s natural environment, we must not become complacent, lest we fail to protect this unique, invaluable resource.

The risk is very real. Roads, transmission lines, new development, and other human activity are knocking ever more loudly at the door. Development not only destroys habitat, but it can alter when, where, and how animals move between habitats. Fragmented habitat limits natural dispersal of young animals, isolates populations, reduces genetic exchange, and lowers population levels over time. Roads and roadside areas are often avoided by wildlife, create barriers to movement, and can be fatal for many species as they attempt to cross.

That’s why Maine Audubon, along with many other partners, is working in the North Woods to:

  • Protect the most important conservation and recreation places through land acquisition and conservation easements.
  • Improve stewardship and habitat connectivity of the surrounding “matrix” forest.
  • Assist others who are searching for new ways to support a diverse rural economy dependent on both forest products and nature-based tourism and recreation.
  • Craft recommendations for how best to site and operate new subdivisions, development, and renewable energy.

We are helping landowners write wildlife-friendly forest management plans through our Forestry for Maine Birds program; helping towns and private landowners receive professional assistance and funding to replace poorly functioning culverts with Stream Smart crossings that allow fish and wildlife passage; working to ensure riparian areas retain the shade and shelter that trout and salmon need; and making recommendations to the Land Use Planning Commission and Central Maine Power on how to better site and manage new and proposed developments. We are also continuing our long tradition of bringing people out into nature to inspire a sense of wonder and build a culture of wildlife conservation in Maine.

Black-throated Green Warbler
A Black-throated Green Warbler.

My own personal experiences in the North Woods are as varied as the terrain and climate, and have provided me with a rich bank of memories, sounds, scents, and feelings. I’ve carefully picked my way through the rock-strewn rapids of the Allagash, watching a moose cow and calf feeding in the shallows. I’ve been chased by a bear while on my way to conduct an early morning breeding bird survey in a remote bog far north of Bangor. I’ve camped under a full moon at Thoreau’s Island on the West Branch of the Penobscot, exactly 162 years after Thoreau was there himself. I’ve skied from Greenville to Kokadjo on a snowmobile trail without seeing another person for the entire 28 miles.

I’ve been blessed by these experiences. They take my breath away, make me stop and stare, stop and listen, stop and wonder, stop and yearn.

Beyond its ecological diversity, unusual land use history, and importance to recreation and timber production, the North Woods embodies an ethos unique to Maine. Those who have lived, worked, or traveled these woods and waters know there is a special spirit that keeps calling you back. There is always more to explore, more to see, more to listen to, more to learn. We cannot forget how special it is, how unique, how irreplaceable. Together, we must do whatever we can to keep it whole, keep it healthy, keep it productive, and keep it brimming with life.

Sally Stockwell is Maine Audubon’s Director of Conservation.

Current Threats to North Woods Habitat Connectivity

New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC)

CMP’s proposed transmission line would result in a long scar that fragments the North Woods from the Maine-Canada border to The Forks. As the proposal stands, we believe CMP has not done nearly enough to address impacts to wildlife habitat. Read our op-ed.

Proposed Changes to the Adjacency Rules by the Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC)

The LUPC is pursuing major changes to how development is sited in Maine’s Unorganized Territories, which comprise the majority of the North Woods. We are actively sharing our concerns regarding the current plan’s scope and pace, and making recommendations on how to better balance development and habitat. Read our comments.