Maine’s northern forests are important to the biodiversity of the world
by Erica Kaufmann, Forestland Steward
The first summer I worked as a Forest Society of Maine (FSM) steward, I took a monitoring trip up Big Spencer Mountain. It was early July; the weather was sticky and hot, and my colleague and I spent the day picking our way over rocks, ladders, and the half-brittle tree crowns that fierce winter winds had broken off and scattered along the trail.
It was mid-afternoon and we were headed home, bouncing down the Sias Hill Road when it happened: a massive bird swooped low and crossed the road about 30 feet in front of our truck. The huge raptor hung in the air and snatched at some small animal rustling in the grass. It missed. Then it changed direction, fast, long brown flight feathers slipping through air like fingers moving through water. As it sailed off, we twisted our necks to gape back through the cloud of dust, blinking and trying to get a last look.
I’d heard people claim, before, that they’d seen a golden eagle and always assumed that they’d misidentified a juvenile Bald. But the bird I saw that day was far bigger than any adolescent bald eagle I’d ever seen, so I consulted an ornithological expert: my boss at the time, the late Alan Hutchinson, who spent many years working with raptors. Alan assured me that it is not uncommon for golden eagles to use Maine’s remote mountains as hunting grounds.
I was recently reminded of my avian encounter while reading a 2016 paper by Janet McMahon, M.S., Diversity, Continuity, and Resilience—The Ecological Values of the Western Maine Mountains. McMahon’s paper catalogs a number of ways in which the habitats of northern and western Maine are significant on a continental and even global level.
McMahon defines the Western Maine Mountains as the “broad band from the summits of the Katahdin group… to Boundary Bald Mountain and the Mahoosuc Range on Maine’s western border,” an area that encompasses more than 5,000,000 acres. In addition to being “the only region in the eastern United States with year round activity by golden eagles, Maine’s rarest breeding bird,” the Western Maine Mountains are home to all of the state’s tallest mountains; tundra and boreal communities that occur in few places around the world, and 139 species of rare plants and animals.
Diversity, Continuity, and Resilience does an excellent job highlighting how “the timber value and resilience of [the region’s] vast forests, most of which have been in private ownership and actively managed for more than two centuries,” have been key to retaining large blocks of undeveloped, road-less land—“…the only place,” McMahon writes, “in the eastern United States where such a large area has remained continuously forested since pre-settlement times.”
Moosehead Lake, of course, is at the heart of these ecologically rich forestlands. As we take stock of the region’s many assets, we can celebrate being at the core of what the National Audubon Society has identified as our country’s largest globally important area for birds. We can boast that the woods around Nahmakanta Lake contain “the highest concentration of pristine, remote ponds in New England.”
McMahon’s paper, which includes many more facts and superlatives than I can echo in this article, is available for download at ‘mainemountaincollaborative.org/resources/.’ It’s an accessible read about some of the many gifts that Maine’s vast forests give to us residents, our visitors, and to the world.
The Forest Society of Maine is a non-profit land trust that has helped to conserve more than 1,000,000 acres of Maine’s North Woods for their ecological, economic, recreational, and cultural values. Learn more at fsmaine.org.
Originally published in Moosehead Matters, March 20, 2019