An Ecological Reserve System for Maine: Are we really making progress?

by Mitch Lanksy. Posted 5/19/01 on meepi.org.

Maine has only around 2% of its land in protected forest reserves. Most of this reserved forest is in Baxter State Park, though other, smaller, reserves have been established on some state forests and on lands owned by The Nature Conservancy. Forested ecological reserves are important not only for protecting biodiversity, but also for improving forest practices on non-reserved forest land. The current system of reserved forests is inadequate for either purpose.

Reserves and biodiversity. The importance of reserves for protecting biodiversity is well established. After all, native species evolved in forests shaped by natural processes. Forest management, in contrast, is creating novel habitats that some native species may not be well adapted to over the long run.

Although habitats created by management have some resemblance to those created through natural disturbances, there are many profound differences. For one, natural disturbances, such as wind, fire, insects, or disease normally do not remove part or all the above ground biomass. When trees die, they stay on site, even as they rot, creating important habitat for birds, mammals, insects, amphibians, and fungi.

Natural disturbances usually do not fill the landscape with roads, trails, or yards. They also do not usually compact or rut the soil on a large scale. Natural disturbance, such as windthrow, in contrast, can churn the soil and create pit and mound structures that offer important microhabitats. Such habitats are not found in forests that have been clearcut with heavy site preparation.

Also natural disturbances differ in intensity and frequency from human management. Management can simplify, fragment, and convert the natural landscape into patterns very different from ones to which some creatures are best adapted. One of the biggest changes to the landscape has been the reduction of large areas of interior forest habitat dominated by trees over 150 years old. In the pre-settlement forest, where stand-replacing disturbances were hundreds of years apart in a given location, such stands made up nearly 60% of the landscape (Lorimer, 1977). Now old growth forests are an insignificant part of the landscape.

To protect all native species over the long run requires that all the habitats for these species, including old growth, be represented somewhere on the landscape at all times. This representation is best achieved with some proportion of the landscape being in ecological reserves--few foresters are managing stands for old growth, and even if they did, they might not be fully successful. We donít fully understand all aspects of forest ecosystems. Indeed, when it comes to fungi, insects, or microlife in the soil, our ignorance is profound.

Forest stands change over time--trees grow, trees die, stands blow down or burn. The landscape is gradually changing as well. Ten thousand years ago, Maine was covered by glaciers. There has been a succession of forest types as the soil has changed and there also has been a change in the abundance of various species as the climate has changed. The strategy for maintaining biodiversity must account for change. There must be replacement stands for current, older forests, and these stands must be located so that recolonization of the full range of species is assured. For species movement, it is better if forest habitats are connected or adjacent, rather than separated or isolated.

If biodiversity is to be protected over time, reserves must be large enough so that the largest expected catastrophic (stand replacing) disturbances still leave enough older forests and replacement stands to ensure that these habitats, and the species that prefer them, can persist.

The reserves must also be large enough to support viable populations of all native species--including those that range through various vegetation types over their life cycles. It is not adequate to protect small plant groups if these will not support viable populations of associated animals. To some extent, wider-ranging species can use managed forests. But some of these species, including large predators such as lynx, wolves, or cougar, are rather shy of too much human activity and thrive better in areas with less roads and mechanized activities.

Reserves and forest management. Is forest management improving growth, yield, or value over what forests would do with no timber management? There is only one way to know--we need forests that are reserved from cutting. If forest management is to be "scientific," there must be controls to the current experiments of forest manipulation. Since there are many different kinds of forests with different disturbance regimes, we need multiple examples of all these forest types if the "experiment" is to be valid.

Reserved forests are not just valuable for such comparisons, they are also important to learn about how natural forests maintain stability (resistance to catastrophic disturbances and, if disturbed, resilience from them). The fact that some old-growth stands can persist for centuries is testimony to their stability. Could it have something to do with their stand structures or the range of species that occupy these structures? Is it possible there is a broader array of predators and parasites for potential pests? If this is so, reserved forests might actually yield benefits to adjacent managed forests that may not have the full array of beneficial species.

There is evidence (cited in Gawler et al, 1996, pg. 53) that old-growth red spruce stands have greater genetic variability than managed stands. This increased diversity offers a better chance that some individuals will survive a given stress--from climate change to insect infestations.

The Precautionary Principle suggests the wisdom of emulating the natural processes and structures of unmanaged forests to ensure that species (which are adapted to these processes and structures) are not lost. To the extent that managers intensify management in a way that simplifies, fragments, or converts the forest, the need for ecological reserves increases--if protecting biodiversity is a priority. To the extent that management incorporates more naturalistic structures, the managed stands can enhance ecological reserves, rather than isolate them. Reserves, in such instances, could be smaller. In the long run, therefore, there are important advantages to managing based on ecological principles, as well as managing for improved yield, quality, and value.

The Maine Forest Biodiversity Project

For five years, the Maine Forest Biodiversity Project (MFBP)--a group of around a hundred individuals representing industry, government, academia, and environmentalists, struggled over the issues discussed above. Members of the MFBP recognized that biodiversity could best be maintained by a combination of a reserve system and improved management. The final products of this group included an assessment of biodiversity in Maine, a study of potential ecological reserves on existing conservation lands in Maine, and a book on managing forests in ways that maintain and enhance biodiversity.

The Biodiversity Project established a Scientific Advisory Panel to get guidance on how large reserves should be to withstand disturbances and still support viable populations of species. The panel came up with a minimum recommendation of a system averaging from 5-12 thousand acres per unit. This was significantly less than recommendations from similar panels looking to establish ecological reserves in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. New Brunswick scientists, for example, came up with a minimum average recommendation of 60,000 acres. The difference, I was told, was due to a focus in Maine on vegetation groups, rather than animal populations. Also, Canadian provinces have a lot more public land to work with. The second explanation sounds suspiciously political, rather than scientific.

The goal of the reserve system contemplated by the MFBP is to set up representative "benchmark" reserves, rather than a reserve system large enough to maintain or restore biodiversity on its own. There was an underlying assumption, which we in the project were never given an opportunity to discuss, that the managed landscape "matrix" was sufficient to protect biodiversity when combined with these representative reserves. The projectís own research into the status of biodiversity, however, showed that this "matrix" has a lot of problems.

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Sidebar

The Biological Diversity In Maine report (Gawler, et al., 1996, pgs 71-72), has the following conclusions:

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The Projectís Ecological Reserve Study Inventory, which looked primarily at the potential for reserves on existing public lands, came up with a median size of only 1,893 acres for lands that met their criteria. Only 25% of potential reserves had the scientific advisory committee's minimum acreage. Only 23% (16 of the 69 potential reserves) would be "self contained" ( have the ecosystem all in reserve boundaries). Only 46% of ecosystem types are represented at least once by geographical area in the potential reserves.(Mc Mahon, 1998) In other words, we could stand to have a lot more land in reserves to even meet the minimum standards of protecting representative ecosystem types (rather than protecting connected ecosystems on a large scale).

Government policy

One might assume that following such revelations, the Project would educate the public on the need for a reserve system, and lobby to purchase more land so that a more complete system could be created. This is not exactly what happened. The Project disbanded before such actions could be taken as a group. Some former members, however, worked out a compromise bill to create an ecological reserve system on existing public lands.

Some groups have heralded this bill, LD 477, as a propitious beginning. But the bill has some odd features that might indicate a set back rather than a leap forward. The bill, for example, limits the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands to use no more than 15% of its lands in an ecological reserve system over the next 15 years. Hunting, fishing, trapping, or snowmobiling would not be restricted, unless there were compelling evidence for a need for restrictions. The bill declares that the Bureau cannot reduce its level of timber harvest as a result of taking land out for a reserve system.The bill further specifies that the Bureau cannot cut less each year than the average cut from the preceding last ten years. This, in effect, forces the Bureau to cut more.

In response to this legislation, the Bureau of Lands and Parks announced, this year, the creation of thirteen new ecological reserves on its land. These reserves add up to nearly 70,000 acres (around 5,300 acres average per unit). This new reserve system will have little impact on the Bureauís annual allowable cut. Most of the reserved area was not intended to be used as commercial forest land and would not have been cut whether it was called reserved or not. There was thus little change in the status quo.

The Bureau can exceed the 15% figure if new lands are purchased for a reserve system. But buying timberlands (rather than bogs, beauty strips, or mountains) for a reserve system may not be that easy. The Land for Maineís Future (LMF) Board has the following provision written in to its mandate: "LMF is prohibited by statute to acquire land for which the primary use value has been or will be commercially harvested or harvestable forest land. This does not prohibit the acquisition of conservation easements on working forest lands which allow for timber production while securing public access and the conservation of other natural resource values." This, perhaps, explains the trend towards mega-easements, rather than full-fee purchase of timberlands. The federal Forest Legacy program has a similar bias towards easements.

This stated policy is rather troubling. How can one set up an ecological reserve system on forest land without purchasing what is now "working forests" or forests that can be cut in the future? Ironically, most of the acreage of reserved forest land in the state was not purchased by the public--it was owned by wealthy individuals who donated the land to the state. Baxter State Park, most of which is managed as an ecological reserve now, had been cut over (and to a large degree, subject to forest fires that followed the cutting) before it was established as a, "forever wild reserve by Percival Baxter. Although the quality of much of this land is not that high, even now, few people would argue that use of this land as a reserve is a bad thing. There is potential, over time, for recovery.

While old growth forests would obviously be preferable for a reserve system, such stands in Maine are currently rare. If we are to have a forest reserve system of any reasonable size, there is little option but to buy commercial timberlands. The Land for Maineís Future Board has ignored state law and its own policy about not purchasing commercial forest land at times. For example, it purchased lands in the Nahmakanta area that have been used for ecological reserves. But the policy is there, in writing, nonetheless, and this has created a bias against larger full-fee purchases and in favor of easements. Often these easements are in areas where there is currently little development pressure. Given that there is not unlimited conservation money available, the easement policy has a considerable effect on competing policies for public land purchases.

This problem is compounded by members representing the state and LMF who have an interest to set precedents for good (for the landowners) deals on easements. Ralph Knoll, a negotiator for the Department of Conservation on the 650,000 acre West Branch Project (mostly to be put in easements), is also on the board of directors of the Forest Society of Maine, the organization writing and promoting the West Branch Project easements. The Land for Maineís Future board has several members who represent large landowners. Marcia McKeague, represents Great Northern, for example. Her colleague, Dan Corcoran, is on the board of Forest Society of Maine. Roger Milliken (who, ironically, has been one of the few LMF board members to ask probing questions) won an easement for his company, Baskahegan Lands, on Spednik Lake last decade. This easement was worth over $1,300 per acre. Baskahegan Lands used some of this money to buy, full-fee, some cutover lands for less than $100 an acre.

Needed steps

Environmental groups have done a poor job of educating the public on the need for an ecological reserve system. Indeed, many of the major environmental groups in the region have been big supporters of large easements, such as the West Branch Project rather than proposals for large ecological reserves. In promoting the easements that "permanently protect" the ("working") forest, these groups are implying that seasonal cottages near rivers or lakes are the biggest threat to the entire woods. This may be due to a recreational, rather than a biodiversity perspective. Seasonal camps destroy the illusion that canoeists are on a wilderness river or lake, rather than in the midst of a commercial forest.

Large landowners are agreeable to the more limited vision--canoeists get their illusion of wilderness, while landowners have few management restrictions beyond the riparian beauty strip. And they can get paid substantial sums for doing little different from what they are already doing

The reality is that forest management has far more impact on the biological integrity of the whole forest than seasonal camps near rivers and lakes. Just the rights-of-way from the tens of thousands of miles of new logging roads (ignoring yards and trails) in the unorganized territories converted more than nine times as much forest land as all the houselots in that region between 1972 and 1993 and created far more fragmentation.(Land and Water Associates et al, 1994). Just between 1982 and 1994, landowners in the state "clearcut" (removed more than 80% of the volume of trees) more than 2.2 million acres of forest (Griffith and Alerich, 1996). In some townships, the majority of the land has been clearcut over the last few decades. While development is definitely the prime cause of fragmentation in the southern part of the state, forest management is the prime cause in the northern part (Gawler et al, 1996 p. 72).

One group, RESTORE: The North Woods, does have a proposal on the table for a 3.2 million acre Park in northern Maine. Much of this park would function as an ecological reserve far bigger than anything proposed by the Maine Forest Biodiversity Project. Even if such a park were established, however, it would still not meet the needs of having ecological reserves for all forest types and bioregions of the state. Unfortunately, little of the debate around this proposal has turned around issues of biodiversity. Instead, most of the discussion has been about timber revenues, jobs, recreation, and taxes. Those environmental groups that have dismissed the park idea have not come up with a clear alternative that would be as effective, or better, at addressing long-term biodiversity needs for the state.

Environmental groups in the state have made too many compromises before enunciating a forest policy that would actually succeed to protect biodiversity over the long run. We need constituency building based around a vision that would actually work. The current policies for ecological reserves and for purchasing public lands, even at their best, could not, over the long run protect biodiversity--unless landowners spontaneously decided to act like Percival Baxter and set up their own large reserves and model forests. Given the current mix of landowners, this seems unlikely in the short run.

Setting up a reserve system should not be seen as an either/or issue of lichens against loggers. We need a forest policy that sets up ecological reserves and improves forest practices and improves the viability of industry and strengthens local communities. It is entirely possible to cut less wood, but generate more value and create more jobs if we have a sensible forest policy. A policy based on ever increasing growth of cutting and consumption can only work for the short term. Forests have limits. If we wait until intensification of forest practices fails to meet ever increasing demands, we will have far fewer options for biodiversity, recreation, and spiritual connection to wild nature than if we confront those limits now, when we still have options.

As BDIM concluded, "The opportunity to avoid an acute biodiversity crisis in Maine is before us. If we do not initiate biodiversity-maintenance strategies now, we will be faced with a loss in biological diversity that will be more difficult to address in the future." (Gawler et al, 1996, p. ix).

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References

Gawler, S., J. Albright, P. Vickery and F. Smith. 1996. Biological Diversity in Maine: An Assessment of Status and Trends in the Terrestrial and Freshwater Landscape. Maine Natural Areas Program, Dept. of Conservation. Augusta, ME.

Griffith, D.M. And C.L. Alerich. 1996. Forest Statistics for Maine, 1995. FIA Unit. Nor. East. Exp. Sta., Resource Bulletin NE-135, Radnor PA.

Land and Water Associates and Market Decisions. 1994. A Summary of the Commissionís Current Land Use Policies and their Net Effects After 20 Years of Development in Maineís Unorganized Territories. Use Regulation Commission. Dept. Of Conservation. Agusta, ME.

Lorimer. C. G. 1977. The presettlement forest and natural disturbance cycle of northeastern Maine. Ecology. 58 (1): 139-148

McMahon, J. 1998. An Ecological Reserves System Inventory: Potential Ecological Reserves on Maineís Existing Public and Private Conservation Lands. Maine Forest Biodiversity Project, Maine State Planning Office.