Andrew Barton

What do Bigelow Preserve, Mount Abraham, and Crocker Mountain all have in common? At least two things: they’re some of the most beautiful areas in Franklin County and they’re all part of Maine’s official Ecological Reserve System.

Ecological reserves are public lands designated to protect and monitor Maine’s natural habitats. The system was created in 2000 to maintain an effective portfolio of all habitat types found in Maine.

The Ecological Reserve System protects more than 90,000 acres in 17 reserves. Even though these state-owned ecological reserves cover less than half of 1% of the state, they protect some of the most spectacular and recognizable places in Franklin County and in other parts of the state, like the Cutler Coast in Washington County and Tunk Lake in Hancock County.

Ecological reserves serve other important purposes. They protect some of the biggest, oldest trees in Maine, along with some of our most imperiled species. The 4,033-acre Mount Abraham reserve, near Strong, for example, supports eight uncommon natural communities and seven rare plant species. (Of course, it also provides terrific hiking, hunting, and fishing.)

Ecological reserves are research sites for scientists to study how the changing climate and different management practices impact the environment. Ecological reserves are large carbon sinks and can help fight climate change. On average, ecological reserves store 30% more carbon than other lands in Maine on a per acre basis. These are important and inspiring places.

Despite the commendable success of the Bureau of Parks and Land’s Ecological Reserve program, glaring gaps remain in this network of reserves. Only a portion of all habitat types are under conservation, leaving many important habitats and the species they support vulnerable, especially in southern Maine. There’s little representation in the network, for example, of oak pine forests, of lowland northern hardwood forest, and of eastern lowland spruce flats.

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Most agree that the Ecological Reserve System needs to be expanded. So, what’s stopping that? In the original 2000 legislation to create the system, an arbitrary cap was placed on total acreage. It’s time to remove that limit.

A bill working its way through the state legislature, LD 736, would do just that. It would lift the cap to allow a modest expansion of the ecological reserve lands maintained by the state, protecting a wider array of important habitats and the wildlife supported by them.

As a member of the Ecological Reserve Scientific Advisory Committee, I help the Bureau of Parks and Lands review designations and create new ecological reserves following the guidelines of the Integrated Resource Policy. The process is deliberate and public, with safeguards in place to ensure that only the right lands are protected. For example, it’s required that any potential acquisition be from a willing seller to a willing buyer.

The law also incentivizes the Bureau of Parks and Lands to avoid designating excessive ecological reserves to avoid a financial burden on the agency. Plus, there is a statutory limit that requires that new designations not impact the level of timber harvest. Maintaining those protections for the bureau while lifting the current cap and expanding the reserve system is the right thing to do.

Maine’s Ecological Reserve System isn’t the most well-known program in the state, but it’s among our most important.

I hope that LD 736 passes and we can continue the important work of ensuring that our most beautiful lands are protected, in Franklin County and across the state.

Andrew Barton of Farmington is a forest ecologist and professor of biology at the University of Maine at Farmington.

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