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Conservation in the North Woods: How much is enough?

Satellite, GPS, aerial photography used to supervise millions of acres

By Diana George Chapin

Maine’s history, economy and culture are inextricably intertwined with its working forests. Traditionally, the state’s expansive timberland was held mainly by private landowners, whether individuals or businesses.

However, over two million acres of forests in the northern part of the state are no longer wholly held by private enterprise. A controlling interest in considerable acreage has been obtained by non-profit corporate land trusts.

On May 15, The Nature Conservancy, the Forest Society of Maine (FSM) and Plum Creek announced from Portland what was billed as “an historic” conservation easement on 363,000 acres near Greenville. The easement is reportedly one of the largest in the history of conservation in the United States.

According to Plum Creek’s website, the organization is largest and most geographically diverse private landowner in the nation.

The easement created an interconnected forest network of 2 million acres in Maine, stretching from the St. John Valley to Moosehead Lake to Mount Katahdin. “This starts to rival the size of Yellowstone National Park,” said Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the FSM, in a March 2012 interview.

The easement on the Plum Creek land represents the conservation portion of a compromise plan developed by Plum Creek through negotiations with land trusts and environmental groups, then approved by the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC). Following a multiyear process, 96% of the property was placed in permanent protection from development, and just 4% was zoned for development by Plum Creek’s private enterprise endeavors.

The Forest Society of Maine holds the controlling interest in the lands through a conservation easement. The Maine Community Foundation will manage the $1.56 million stewardship fund for the property.

Hutchinson described the negotiation process: “With Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine Audubon kind of pushing from the outside, and The Nature Conservancy working the business angle on the inside, putting easement terms on the table that could be really binding on Plum Creek … at the end of the day LURC approved a plan and Plum Creek accepted it.”

According to Hutchinson, development will be allowed only along roadways and corridors where there is already human activity.

The Forest Society of Maine describes itself as “the land trust for Maine’s North Woods” and “a statewide land trust working with landowners to conserve and maintain the many values of forestlands in Maine.”

“We’re most familiar with central Maine north—in the big woods,” said Hutchinson. “Our goal is to try and establish a permanent road corridor that would allow people forever to drive, to make the loop around Moosehead Lake.”

Outside of the Plum Creek deal, some of the areas obtained by the FSM are ecological reserves. The society’s Fall 2011 newsletter states: “Although timber harvesting and roads for motorized use are typically not compatible with the goals of ecological reserves, many other traditional activities, such as hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and canoeing, are allowed.”

The environmental qualities of the forests of northern Maine hone the FSM’s acquisitions. “If you give good, solid protection to all your wetlands and your riparian areas, you’ll protect 50% of all the biological diversity in the North Woods,” said Hutchinson, who is trained as a wildlife biologist, not a forester. “If you then put on top of that protections of all the site-specific locations of your rare and endangered species, plants and animals or natural communities, you pick up another 25 to 30% of all of your biological diversity in the North Woods.

“What’s remaining, then, is that last 25% or so are almost entirely species that are generalists,” he said. “They are wide ranging, they don’t have any real special habitat types and they flourish by maintaining a diversity of age classes across the landscape.”

Once FSM acquires the controlling interest in land through easements, monitoring of the privately held property is key.

“When you hold an easement, you take on a permanent responsibility to ensure that the terms of the easement are complied with,” said Hutchinson, who has worked for FMS since 1997. “We have a team of people on staff here who do nothing but oversee these easement terms across the state. We’ve developed a gold standard nationally, in terms of what we’ve put online here in terms of easement oversight.”

And just how many staff people oversee millions of acres? Two.

“It boils down to technology,” Hutchinson said. “Satellite imagery. GIS. Remote sensing. Aerial photography.”

Jake Metzler works as forestland steward for FMS and is a forester trained in computer applications that analyze information on the ground from air and space. From his desk in Bangor he studies data and imagery on his computer, discerning landforms and water bodies, differences in tree species patterns and even logging roads and new skidder trials on the ground across Northern and Downeast Maine.

The satellite photographs FMS land during its orbit over Maine every 16 days. As imagery shows vegetative cover types and forestry operations’ work over time, Metzler monitors activity on easement-covered land.

“You can notice the changes between a couple of years, and that targets where we would go and monitor to see if there was any special feature or whatnot,” Metzler said. “It’s pretty easy to see the difference and then figure out what’s going on pretty quickly. I’ve been looking at this stuff for a long time, so I can pretty much guess what happened between the dates. This is just the first cut to highlight places to go visit.”

FMS staff visits the area by plane, taking hundreds of pictures per trip and logging flight patterns by GPS.

“When they are doing their monitoring out there, they are traveling with a GPS unit. So they can come back in here and overlay it,” Hutchinson said. “This is all part of our compliance so that we can document where we’ve been what we’ve seen, when we did it, so if there is ever any question we just maintain all this information so if we ever needed to go to court to prove that we were really there and did it—here it is.

“The easement has set up this very important process where landowners are required to share with us information on their harvest plans: volumes, how it’s going to be sustainable over time and models, but then also specific locations of where they are planning to harvest,” Hutchinson said. “And the easement requires that the landowner maintains—and we have it as well—all the information on special habitats, rare and endangered species, State fish and wildlife habitats, a whole array of things of that sort.

“One of these large easements might have 200 special sites or maybe three- or four- or five-hundred special sites if you put them all together—rare plant sites, etcetera,” Hutchinson said. “It’s part of that information sharing as they go through their harvest planning each year. They have systems like this too.  So if they’re planning on doing a harvest, the first thing they have is these red flags show up on here, these special areas that need special consideration and special protection.”

The aerial monitoring of the landowner serves “to make sure they haven’t missed something, or they haven’t tried to sneak something by,” Hutchinson said. “The approach we take is that we’re in their office all the time, talking with them, making sure that they have all their thinking and information, planning and processes in place so they don’t screw up.”

Analyzing the imagery also helps FMS identify new areas for acquisition.

Pointing to one satellite image on Metzler’s computer of the area around Big Spencer and Little Spencer Mountains with environmentally desirable vegetative cover, Hutchinson said, “It’s this kind of imagery that flags that. You can just see the beautiful intact hardwood. We saw that and it led us to—seven years ago—undertake a fundraising campaign we were able to negotiate the purchase of that before it was harvested. We raised about $3 million, bought it, gave it to the people of the State of Maine and it’s set aside as an ecological reserve and a hiking area right now. It was identified as having one of the largest intact, uncut, hardwood forests in the North Woods.”

Some of FSM’s funding comes from private donations, but public funding is critical.

“Our Land for Maine’s Future program, and there’s a wonderful and very important federal program called the Forest Legacy Program, absolutely, for monies to acquire easements for lands—and 95% of what we do is easements—oh, absolutely—state and federal grants and foundation grants are absolutely key.”

When asked how much forested land should be conserved across the state—and how much of that should be set aside as “forever wild”—Hutchinson indicated uncertainty. “We don’t have a solid target yet,” he said. “I think it’s just going to evolve. That’d be a great question to ask the Nature Conservancy.”

And where exactly are the bounds “North Woods?”

“Where is the North Woods?” Hutchinson repeats with a chuckle. “Wherever you want it to be.”

The goals of FSM and its partners might just explain one final sentiment from Hutchinson: “There is a tremendous amount of distrust around land conservation in the rural areas of Maine,” he said. “A tremendous amount.”

This is part of an ongoing series about Maine Land Trusts – Read all articles here.

Diana George Chapin is a freelance writer and a fourth-generation family farmer from Montville, Maine.