The trees grow tall in Donnell Pond Public Lands at the base of Tunk Mountain, which is part of the Maine Ecological Reserve System. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

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.

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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.

Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Natural Areas Program

Hundreds of monitoring plots are sprinkled throughout these reserves. To monitor them, researchers visit the plots and record a wide variety of data, including tree species and size, understory species, lichen and moss species, and soil texture and drainage.

It takes about 10 years for researchers to visit every plot. Then they start over again.

“We have an ecologist on staff in charge of ecological reserve monitoring, and we recruit interns every summer from a number of schools,” said Molly Docherty, director of the Maine Natural Areas Program. “They then get trained and go out to do work on site.”

In addition to the ongoing monitoring, the reserves have proved to be valuable settings for a variety of research projects, including a study on wood frogs in the alpine ponds of the Bigelow Mountain Range; a study on lichens in Deboullie Public Lands deep in the forests of northern Maine; and a study on pitcher plants growing in Donnell Pond Public Lands in eastern Maine.

Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Natural Areas Program

“There have been at least 15 outside research projects happening on the reserves, with folks coming from as far away as University of Missouri,” Docherty said.

It’s important to note that the Maine Ecological Reserve System doesn’t stand alone.

The Nature Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club also own and manage conserved land in Maine in a way that’s consistent with how Maine ecological reserves are managed. In a collaboration with the state, these organizations monitor their lands using the same methods, and all of that information is placed in the same database to be used in research. This adds about 120,000 acres from TNC and 22,000 acres from AMC to this ongoing conservation and monitoring project.

“Basically we’re doing the same type of management that the state is doing, letting nature drive how the system develops,” said Nancy Sferra, director of land management for The Nature Conservancy in Maine.

“These benchmark areas are going to help us with making some decisions about the role of climate adaptation and understanding if there are ways to mitigate climate change,” Sferra added. “Can we be doing some active work on our conserved lands and even unconserved lands to push the needle in the direction we want it to go in terms of climate change?”

In addition, the majority of Baxter State Park — about 127,000 acres — has long been managed similarly to state ecological reserves and is therefore monitored for the project. And some federally conserved lands in the state are also managed and monitored as reserves.

Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Natural Areas Program

When it comes to state property that can be designated as Ecological Reserves, there is a limit. Currently, the state law states that “total land acreage designated as ecological reserves may not exceed 15 percent of the total land acreage under the jurisdiction of the bureau or 100,000 acres, whichever is less.”

Altogether, less than 4 percent of conserved land in Maine is in reserve status, with no timber harvesting. Some believe that this system of reserves and similarly protected lands should be made larger, whether it’s through amending the original legislation or through the actions of conservation organizations like TNC and AMC.

“It’s not even close to complete,” McMahon said. “It’s roughly 90,000 acres and most are in the northern part of the state, but the idea is ultimately there will be reserves in all parts of the state, representing the whole landscape … It’s a work in progress.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...