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Where the wild things are: New ecoreserves let nature take its course
From AMC Outdoors Magazine, Jan./Feb- 2003
By Nancy Bazilchuk
With 175,000 acres of Baxter State Park protected by deed as "forever ... in the natural wild state," Maine might seem an unlikely place for state officials to cordon off additional lands from timber harvesting and other intensive human activities. But Maine is a big state20,480,000 acres and the wild places of Baxter and other public lands make up but a small fraction of it. In January 2001, after lengthy public process, officials set aside 70,000 acres of state-owned lands as "ecological reserves," places where nature will be left to take its own course. The 13 reserves range from seaside bogs, grassy meadows, and rocky headlands to inland patches of old-growth red spruce and white cedar.
Maines efforts are part of a growing trend in which state government protects land primarily so natural processes can unfold without human intervention, although recreation is allowed to continue. The recent deals to conserve 171,500 acres of former International Paper Company land in New Hampshire last year and 133,000 acres of former Champion International land in Vermont in 1999 included state-owned ecological reserves as critical pieces of the complex agreements.
The idea of ecological reserves took shape over the last four decades and has gained widespread acceptance among conservation biologists in the last 20 years, says AMC Senior Scientist Dave Publicover, a forest ecologist. Ecological reserves are intended to protect not just species, but biological communities and entire landscapes in their natural condition. "Biodiversity encompasses the diversity of life from the genetic to the ecosystem level," Publicover explains.
In the Northern Forest, the need for reserves came to the publics attention during the deliberations of the Northern Forest Lands Council, a federally funded group that in the early 1990s looked at conserving forest lands and traditional uses in northern New York and New England. It made recommendations to enhance quality of life for local residents; encourage the production of sustainable-yield forest products; and protect recreational, wildlife, scenic, and wildland resources.
Ecologists and environmental groups, including AMC, advised the council that government needed to do more to protect all life forms, not just rare ones from tiny soil invertebrates and wood frogs to pine martens and lynx. And the best way to protect that skein of life, said Malcolm Hunter, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Maine, would be to set some land aside. Humans "could assume that we have the knowledge to manipulate ecosystems in ways that protect or enhance all their values ... and that we have the will to act on that knowledge," Hunter told the council in 1992. "I think this assumption ... is dangerously wrong at worst. We need areas that we do not manipulate." In the end, the council recommended that "states should develop a process to conserve and enhance biodiversity across the landscape."
A decade later, the reserves in New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont are using the emerging science of conservation biology to promote the establishment of state-wide ecological reserve systems. In a region where public lands prepresent a relatively small percentage of the total area, Ginny McGrath, Vermont state lands general counsel, says its now accepted practicealthough not without controversyto set aside some lands to protect a states natural heritage.
Reserves turn the recommendations of ecologists into reality by protecting tens of thousands of remote state-owned acres so that natural processesfrom catastrophic windstorms to the ebb and flow of insect, deer, and moose populationscan function unchecked. Andy Cutko, an ecologist with the Maine Natural Areas Program, which monitors the Maine reserves, says reserves help scientists learn how unmanaged natural systems behave, especially in the face of such environmental pressures as climate change and acid rain.
Though scientists still dont have a fixed formula to determine how large reserves should be, The Nature Conservancy recommends 25,00040,000 acres as a minimum. So, from an ecological perspective, the New England reserves are relatively small a few hundred to 15,000 acres, Publicover says. Only seven of Maines 13 reserves are as larges as the 5,000-acre minimum initially recommended by a scientific advisory group. Vermonts reserve encompasses 12,500 acres and New Hampshires occupies 15,000 acres
Publicover has taken part in most of the scientific research and public negotiation that has guided the establishment of reserves since the beginning of the Northern Forest Lands Council. He says that the New England reserves have been shaped as much by politics and economics as by scientific recommendations. Therefore the size and human uses of the New England reserves vary according to what local citizens have negotiated. Hunting and fishing are allowed on all these reserves, and snowmobiling on established trails generally has been allowed to continue. Though no timbering is allowed in the reserves in Maine and New Hampshire, the Vermont reserve will allow very limited timber cutting to create game habitat for hunters.
Hunting and fishing are also allowed in some wilderness areas in these states, Publicover says. Although established for a different purpose, federally designated Wilderness areas and state-owned "forever wild" tracts often function in ways similar to reserves. Federal Wilderness areas now total more than 110,000 acres in the White Mountain National Forest and nearly 60,000 acres are designated as federal Wilderness in Vermonts Green Mountain National Forest. New Yorks Adirondack Park and Maines Baxter State Park also contain thousands of acres of de facto wilderness.
But even though wilderness and ecological reserves are managed similarily, the original purpose of wilderness was to protect scenery and recreation. That doesn't necessarily fulfill all the functions of a reserve, says Publicover. "Because of their size, wilderness areas now serve as our most important ecological reserves, though they tend to be concentrated in mountainous areas and do not come close to representing the full diversity of the natural landscape," he says. "Reserves may not be of high recreational value, but are of huge ecological value."
David Houghton, Northern New England Field Office Director for the Trust for Public Land, says future ecological reserves in the Northeast will most likely come from piecing together public and private lands to create parcels large enough to protect whole habitats. On lands along the Highlands of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, for instance, a coalition of local and national conservation groups is undertaking a multi-state effort to protect open space and ecologically critical areas, says Jad Daley, AMCs Mid-Atlantic Conservation director.
Bob Durand, Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs for the outgoing administration, says that heavily developed states may not be able to create large ecological reserves, but can gain environmental benefits from protecting what they can. Massachusetts has set aside more than 100,000 acres in the last four years, concentrating onfive, 15,000-acre areas. "We dont have the Adirondacks or Yellowstone," says Durand, "but we still have large, functional landscapes that cry out for protection."
WHY ALL THE FUSS?
The plan for an ecological reserve in New Hampshire has been accepted, if not embraced, as a critical part of the International Paper Company purchase. But the idea of a reserve kicked off vehement protest in Vermont. A look at citizen reactions there show how political context can create roadblocks for future ecological reserves.
When Vermont Gov. Howard Dean announced the $26.5-million Champion deal in December 1998, support was widespread. But after the 1999 Legislature approved the states $4.5 million contribution, bickering began. Camp owners with properties on the land wanted leases extended in perpetuity. The representative of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmens Clubs, said anglers and hunters feared the state might keep them off the reserve to protect a rare plant or bird. The feeling of "us vs. them" persisted in spite of public meetings and creation of a citizens advisory council.
Much of the distrust was rooted in frustration over other political changes in the state, from school-funding reform to homosexual civil unions, says Alan Parker, director of communications for the Vermont Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. "To me, it is a simple as the old and the new in Vermont," Parker said. "Sportspeople and loggers who have practiced their craft for a couple of centuries feel that newer residents dont respect those traditions on the land." The battle over the reserve continued to play out in the 2002 Legislative Session. In the end, the reserve remained.
Across the Connecticut River, New Hampshire benefited from watching Vermonts struggles, says Fred King of Pittsburg, former state senator and member of the International Paper deals steering committee. Residents also stuck together because the lands price tag$42 millionproved formidable glue, says Dave Publicover, AMC senior scientist, who worked on the states technical committee. No one partynot the state, nor any non-governmental organizationcould raise that amount in the context of the deal, he says. Compromise abounded. Environmental groups, including the AMC, wanted a 25,000-acre reserve, labeled a "natural area," but settled for 15,000 acres, with another 10,000 acres where logging is allowed. Reserve opponents relented when 146,000 acres were kept as working forest. "Im not sure in the end that everyone accepted the need for a reserve," Publicover says. "But everyone accepted that it was necessary for the coalition to stay together."