Down East 2013 ©
Ecological reserves may not be a hot topic in your household, but in Maine’s conservation, recreation, and landowner communities, they get a lot of attention.
On September 17, the Conservation Recreation Forum received a status report on the designation, monitoring, and uses of eco reserves in Maine from Andy Cutko of the Department of Conservation.
The July 2009 report, issued by the Eco Reserves Scientific Advisory Committee, is called the “Ecological Reserve Status Report, July 2009” and can be accessed under the “Overview” header at the state of Maine Web site .
The Conservation Recreation Forum consists of organizations representing sportsmen, environmentalists, and landowners that meets periodically to learn about key issues, reduce areas of conflict, and find new ways to collaborate.
Eco reserves are protected areas maintained in a natural condition, where natural disturbances are allowed to proceed without significant human interference.
The Maine Legislature established eco reserves in 2000 and defined them as follows: “an area owned or leased by the State and under the jurisdiction of the Bureau (of Parks and Lands), designated by the Director, for the purpose of maintaining one or more natural community types or native ecosystem types in a natural condition and range of variation and contributing to the protection of Maine’s biological diversity, and managed: a) as a benchmark against which biological and environmental change can be measured; b) to protect sufficient habitat for those species whose habitat needs are unlikely to be met on lands managed for other purposed; or c) as a site for ongoing scientific research, long-term environmental monitoring, and education.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Essentially these reserves are Maine’s genetic database, a control area that helps measure human impacts in other areas of the state, and places where we try to maintain biological diversity. But eco reserves are controversial because of their potential to limit recreational uses, reduce public access, and impact our forest economy by taking land out of production.
So far the state has designated 86,000 acres of public land as eco reserves managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife manage another 11,000 acres as eco reserves.
But this is just the tip of the reserve’s iceberg. About 650,000 acres of Maine land owned by the federal government or conservation organizations are managed with compatible goals.
The latest report from the Scientific Advisory Committee was prepared in response to concerns about motorized access to reserves and include a re-examination of the purposes and designation process, management policies, and implementation of those policies.
Although the report is informative, its eight recommendations demonstrate that many of the issues need further attention, including an update of the criteria for eco reserve designation. The committee hopes to formalize its role in reviewing potential additions to the eco reserve system and to continue to engage with stakeholders on recreational issues.
Access and use issues will continue to be major concerns. Currently, allowed uses include nonmotorized activities such as hiking, primitive camping, hunting, fishing, and trapping.
Existing snowmobile and ATV trails are allowed “where they are well designed and built, are situated in safe locations, have minimal adverse impact on the values for which the reserve was created, and cannot be reasonably relocated outside the reserve.”
New snowmobile and ATV trails are allowed only if all three of the following criteria are met: no safe, cost effective alternatives exist; the impact on protected natural resource values is minimal; and the trail or road will provide a crucial link in a significant trail or road system.”
The eco reserves law, however, also requires that “every effort should be made to relocate roads, motorized use trails and other incompatible uses outside of the reserve, and to close and revegetate these areas.”
The Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences is conducting a study of the impacts of various types of recreational trails on surrounding ecosystems, including a number of sites within state eco reserves. Preliminary data indicate a concern that non-native plants are found at a higher frequency along motorized trails than non-motorized trails.
Seven of the existing sixteen reserves currently contain trails or roads for motorized uses.
The latest report attempts to address all of the concerns about access and use of eco reserves, at least in a preliminary way, including the “perception that motorized trail use has been limited in reserves for ‘political’ purposes rather than scientific.”
The concern of the forest products industry that reserves remove too much land from harvesting was also addressed in the report, which noted that reserves “currently account for roughly one half of one percent of the state’s forestland (and less than that for operable forestland).”
My observations, after hearing Cutko’s report, are these:
We’ve designated much more than a majority of the acres and ecological types that is needed to have a complete system in Maine.
On the issue of motorized use, they’re going to stick with the current language regarding motorized trails but provide guidance on the terms (such as the “reasonable alternative” that is used to deny a trail in a reserve).
It’s interesting that a lot of state-owned land is managed like an eco reserve, even if it is not officially or legally so designated, and there are many lands governed by conservation easements not owned by DOC or other state agencies that are managed as eco reserves or like eco reserves.
For those with a real interest in these issues, or who just want to learn more about the state’s ecological reserve system, the entire report of the Scientific Advisory Committee will be worth reading. Check for it on the Web site of the Department of Conservation next week.