New Law Will Expand Maine’s Ecological Reserve System

Anarba Groub

Maine Audubon and Natural Resources Council of Maine news release

A bill that will expand Maine’s network of ecological reserves to protect more habitat for the state’s rich array of plants, animals, and other species was signed into law by Governor Janet Mills on Tuesday March 29, 2022.

State-owned ecological reserves cover less than 1% of the state, yet they protect some of Maine’s most spectacular and characteristic landscapes, including the Cutler Coast, the Bigelow Range, and part of the Mahoosucs.

LD 736 will allow the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) to acquire additional ecological reserves and demonstrate that the protection of land and biodiversity can be achieved while supporting Maine’s nature-based economy and acting on climate change.

“Maine’s ecological reserves provide critically important refuges and source areas for native plants and animals in the face of a warming climate and changing land use practices. They also serve as indispensable benchmarks that help us understand how best to manage and conserve Maine’s rich variety of habitats—from mountains to working forests to streams and wetlands,” said Janet McMahon, ecologist and member of the Ecological Reserves Scientific Advisory Committee. “Completing a Maine Ecological Reserve System is an urgent need. LD 736 will help us achieve this goal.”

LD 736 received unanimous, bipartisan approval by the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee. The bill as amended increases the size caps on ecological reserves managed by BPL. It also includes a provision that adds the gathering of materials by members of federally recognized Wabanaki tribes to the list of allowable activities on ecological reserves. The bill makes other modest improvements that reflect new science and conservation needs.

“Maine’s Ecological Reserve System was created more than 21 years ago and, in that time, has become a successful network of public and private lands that protects examples of some of the many habitat types and natural features found in Maine,” said Melanie Sturm, Forests & Wildlife Director, Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM). “Given its record of success and wide-ranging benefits to the environment and Maine people, the time has come to expand the Ecological Reserve System and protect more of these special places.”

“The best way to maintain biodiversity is to keep good examples of all the pieces of the puzzle,” said Sally Stockwell, Director of Conservation, Maine Audubon. “Maine’s Ecological Reserve System creates a vital network of biologically and geographically diverse lands that over time will protect the natural communities our plants and animals need for breeding, feeding, resting, and raising their young.”

Saving All the Pieces

The Ecological Reserve System was created by the Maine Legislature in 2000 to maintain effective examples of all the different habitat types found in the state, serve as scientific research sites, protect biodiversity, and provide low-impact recreation opportunities. However, achieving the goal of protecting all of Maine’s habitat types was constrained because the original law imposed restrictive caps on the amount of land that could be designated by the Bureau as ecological reserves, according to a special report released by NRCM.

“From the Bigelow Preserve to Cutler Coast, Maine’s Ecological Reserve System includes so many treasured Maine places,” said Beth Ahearn, Director of Government Affairs, Maine Conservation Voters. “Maine Conservation Voters is thrilled that LD 736 — legislation that will preserve biodiversity and help meet Maine’s bold climate goals by growing our ecological reserve lands — was signed into law by Governor Mills. With this historic action, the goal of protecting all of Maine’s habitat types is no longer out of reach.”

BPL manages 19 ecological reserves that encompass about 97,000 acres, but the original cap of 100,000 acres was limiting its ability to adequately conserve even more vulnerable habitats. Most of the gaps in the Ecological Reserve System are in southern Maine, where the majority of the state’s population could benefit from public land access and development pressures are greatest.

“If there is one thing I have taken away from pandemic life, it’s how essential our outdoor spaces really are,” said Sarah Sindo of Kingfield, Leadership Team member for NRCM Rising, an NRCM initiative to engage young Mainers in environmental advocacy. “More and more people have gotten outside over the past two years, and there’s an entire new generation falling in love with the wilderness. It’s time to guarantee these areas will be protected, and LD 736 will help accomplish that.”

Supporting Natural Climate Solutions

As Maine faces growing threats from development, pollution, and climate change, scientists say that it is more important than ever to protect rare, threatened, and endangered species and to ensure ecosystems remain intact. At least one-third of all plant and animal species and their habitats in Maine are affected by climate-related threats.

“Ecological reserves are one of our best tools for addressing the related and ever-increasing threats of climate change and habitat degradation,” said Dave Publicover, Assistant Director of Research, Appalachian Mountain Club. “Maine deserves great credit for establishing a reserve system on public lands that can serve as a model for other states. LD 736 is an important step in helping this reserve system reach its full potential as originally envisioned.”

“Increasing the limits of what the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands can designate as ecological reserves expands the state’s capacity to protect critical habitats, including intact watersheds that are critical for Maine’s trout and salmon, and respond to climate change,” said Jeff Reardon, Maine Brook Trout Project Director, Trout Unlimited.

On average, ecological reserves store 30% more above-ground carbon on a per acre basis than managed forests in Maine. Expanding ecological reserves is a critical step toward meeting the state’s climate goals, specifically to conserve 30% of Maine land by 2030 and to focus conservation on high biodiversity areas that support habitat connectivity and ecosystem health.

“Ecological reserves are an important conservation tool that helps protect some of Maine’s most special places and habitat types,” says Daniel Grenier, Maine Preserves Manager, The Nature Conservancy in Maine. “We appreciate the efforts of Representative Grohoski as the bill sponsor, and of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands in spearheading this measure, which provides more flexibility to the state for designating ecological reserves.”

New Law Will Expand Maine’s Ecological Reserve System

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