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Charles F. Gauvin, former CEO of Trout Unlimited and executive director of Maine Audubon, advises land trusts and philanthropists on conservation strategy. Bryan Wentzell is executive director of the Maine Mountain Collaborative, a coalition of land trusts and conservation organizations focused on the western Maine mountains.
In late 2020, the Mills administration adopted its Climate Action Plan, which catapulted Maine from the national dregs on climate policy to a leadership position among states. The plan, captioned “Maine Won’t Wait,” was a major policy accomplishment. The recent passage of landmark federal climate legislation, as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, is even greater cause for hope.
It’s worth remembering, however, that the climate crisis is a global problem. At the very least, many of the impacts we’ve seen to date are “baked in” and will continue for the next several decades while (we hope) the rest of the world follows Maine’s — and now the U.S.’s — lead on climate policy.
While waiting for the needed global response, Maine could still be in for a world of climate hurt. Coastal and marine impacts are already well documented and are the reason for the climate plan’s prescriptions for dealing with rising seas and storm surge. Of far lesser focus in the climate plan, however, are mitigating or adapting to impacts on the inland environment. Those are already adversely affecting Maine’s native fish and wildlife species — including brook trout and moose — animals that are as intrinsic to the state’s identity as the puffins and lobsters living offshore.
Adverse climate impacts should concern not only anglers and hunters; they reach deeply into the web of life and should trouble all of us. So, what can be done in the near term to protect Maine’s inland environment and adapt it to a changing climate?
Scientists are now urging that we prioritize conserving so-called “climate corridors,” places that, for geophysical reasons, are more able to tolerate climate impacts than others. The thinking is that conserving these places creates a climate resilience portfolio.
Maine is fortunate to have some highly resilient landscapes and watersheds, none more so than those within the western Maine mountains, a temperate forest of 5 million acres, stretching from Bethel, along the Maine-New Hampshire border, northeastward to Katahdin. Together with its lakes, ponds, rivers, wetlands, and groundwater resources, its topography and relatively undeveloped condition give fish and wildlife an inherent advantage in resisting and adapting to the impacts of a changing climate.
Yet fully realizing the advantage of inherent climate resilience of a landscape like the western Maine mountains requires taking especially good care of the land and the water. Fish and wildlife habitat protection fosters resistance and resilience to significant disturbances such as the floods and droughts associated with climate change. Nowhere is this more important than in the riparian zones (the lands that run alongside streams and lakes of all sizes), which support 85 percent or more of all Maine species in one or more phases of their life cycles.
Taking good care of land and water means more than just preventing conversion of the land from undeveloped forest to developed uses; it means managing roads and other infrastructure to prevent habitat fragmentation and loss. Taking good care also means restoring to a greater extent the forest in which Maine’s fish and wildlife evolved. That forest was older (average tree age of 150 years) and structurally far more complex than the one we have today. Improved forest management also increases stores of carbon and provides carbon-storing wood product. Moreover, Maine’s forests already annually sequester at least 60 percent of Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions, and there is upside in improved forest management.
It’s encouraging that climate resilience is now shaping land conservation efforts in the western Maine mountains. Those efforts represent critical climate action that can begin to deliver results as or more quickly than longer-term actions requiring global cooperation. They warrant a prominent place in the state’s climate strategy and should receive robust policy support from such state agencies as the Land Use Planning Commission and Bureau of Public Lands, as well as directed financial support from the Land for Maine’s Future program and Maine’s Natural Resource Protection program.
Unlike incentivizing energy efficiency and fuel conversions, land conservation is a climate strategy over which Maine has almost total control. Nationally, the Biden administration has adopted (and Maine has embraced) the policy goal of conserving 30 percent of the land by 2030. The new federal climate legislation provides billions in new funding for land conservation.
Those are important drivers, especially if they promote land management that maximizes climate resilience. Otherwise, we Mainers could be waiting for a long time to reap the full benefits of the state’s climate plan and the new federal legislation, while losing much of what makes our state such a very special place.