July 7, 2013

Boreal forest: Maine planners stand to learn lessons from Canada's subarctic timberlands

The challenges facing Maine and Canadian forests point up the need for overall land-use planning.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine's more than 19 million acres of forest face challenges that are showing up in Canadian timberlands, too, including stresses that have decimated several species of migratory songbirds and waterfowl.

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Habitat fragmentation is taking a toll on songbirds like the evening grosbeak in the forests of Canada and Maine, experts agree.

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The Canadian boreal forest is home to some of the largest populations of wolves, grizzly bear and woodland caribou.

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Pressure from mining, petroleum operations and oil extraction, along with the spread of farming at the southern edge of the boreal – or subarctic – forest, may ripple through that still largely pristine environment in ways that are raising concern, according to a recent international conference in Canada.

But the experience unfolding in the far north and responses to it may yield help for complex problems Maine is struggling to resolve, too.

A broad-based coalition of ecological monitors, researchers and representatives of indigenous First Nations peoples is seeking to protect the boreal woods and wetlands, birds and wildlife from threats of pollution and habitat loss, according to the gathering of scientists, industry officials, forestry experts, environmental advocates and policymakers at the Wetlands America Trust meeting in late June in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was co-sponsored by Ducks Unlimited and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

North America's boreal forest is the world's largest intact productive ecosystem, encompassing more than 1.5 billion acres of subarctic forest, wetlands, lakes and streams. Nearly 100 times the size of Maine's forestlands, the boreal spans parts of Canada from the eastern portions of Newfoundland and Labrador to the border between the far northern Yukon and Alaska.

But during the last half century -- and particularly over the past two decades -- the kinds of industrial, forestry and agricultural pressures common to the United States for 200 years have begun to rumble through the vast boreal forest, too.

Those signals are alarming to environmentalists, because relatively untouched land is diminishing worldwide, even as the implications of that loss become more evident.

"We acknowledge that people and birds and habitat share the same landscapes," said Dale Humburg, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited. "How to accommodate all those uses – there's a challenge there."

The southern portion of the boreal borders Maine, and many of the characteristics and conditions of the state's North Woods parallel those found in Canada, said Humburg.

"The big difference is that the boreal forest is a lot more sensitive to change," said Amanda Mahaffey, northeast regional director of the Forest Guild, a nonprofit group of foresters advocating sustainable forestry management. It grows more slowly than forests in Maine, so any injury there would take more time to heal, she said.

Both types of forest are facing more wildfires, invasive insects, disease and extreme weather – almost all believed to be exacerbated by global climate change. And many of the difficult problems are creeping from south to north, Mahaffey said.

But how all the contributing causes and effects are linked is almost impossible to say, and no easy solutions are available.

"There are so many complex factors, and it's so complicated," Mahaffey said. "The forest (in Maine) has been changing over time, but it has accelerated over the last 30 years." And combined pressures "have increased the intensity of the challenges faced by forest managers," she said.

And by birds and wildlife.

The Canadian boreal forest is home to some of the largest populations of wolves, grizzly bear and woodland caribou, and the region provides critical breeding grounds for almost half of North America's migratory ducks, geese and songbirds.

Many ornithologists, entomologists and wildlife biologists agree that habitat fragmentation, caused by industrial development, resource extraction and population sprawl is taking a toll on these birds and animals.

"It's a little bit hard to generalize overall," said Jeff Wells, science and policy director of the Boreal Songbird Initiative and senior scientist at the International Boreal Conservation Campaign. But the decline in certain bird species in the boreal is taking place equally in the forests of Maine.

In the last half century, more than 80 percent of the population of evening grosbeaks in the state's forests have been wiped out, said Wells, who is based in Brunswick. Canada warblers and bay-breasted warblers have declined by 60 percent.

There also has been at least a 95 percent decline in rusty blackbirds, believed to be associated with changes in wetlands.

Among waterfowl, the black duck has been hit hard in the U.S. portion of its range, Wells said. "It used to be quite successful in Maine," he said, but declines in populations here have pushed the species farther north, into the boreal forest of Quebec and Ontario – part of what he describes as "the great boreal nursery."

"So many of the birds that people enjoy are moving in and out of the boreal," Wells said. During fall migration, an estimated 30 million to 50 million birds a night cross over Maine, flying from Canada into the United States, he said.

But the importance of the boreal goes far beyond birds and animals.

The region overall has enormous, if understated, significance in terms of the world's weather, water, marine productivity and carbon containment. Rivers of the boreal that are not yet dammed push fresh water into the northern seas and drive precipitation and wind patterns.

"All these things are crucial to people in the northern U.S.," Wells said.

And nowhere is the link clearer or stronger than in the northern forests of the Pine Tree State.

"Maine – it's trees," said Dave Struble, state entomologist and head of the Forest Health and Monitoring Division of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. "Maine is the most heavily forested state in the U.S. … more than 90 percent forested. Most of it is or could be working forest."

But along with trees and natural habitat come other compelling considerations that affect land use or conservation jobs. Industry, recreation and commercial development matter to people, too. The interconnected gains and losses that change brings are part of the widening debate about the future of both the Canadian boreal and northern temperate forests of Maine and other parts of New England.

"When you talk about mining, people become concerned about water," Struble said. "They want to know what will happen in Maine if we mine."

Or clear-cut.

Or allow large-scale, multiuse development.

"It seems like there are some lessons that should be able to be learned (from the Canadian experience)," Wells said. "One of the solutions that we've been supporting … has been comprehensive land-use planning."

"Northern Maine is increasingly an ecological island (and) it's really up for grabs," said Jym St. Pierre, Maine director for RESTORE: The North Woods. "For the first time in several generations, people are thinking of doing things in northern Maine that were never dreamed of."

Tar sands oil transport by pipeline or rail, mining, wind power development and transmission, biomass chipping and shipping of the northern forests to other countries are all connected to similar issues in Canada, he said.

"Maine has always been treated as an extractive economy," St. Pierre said. "That puts us at a disadvantage, because all these forces are being driven by money in the end. And that to me is very worrisome."

"I think we have always had pretty good interagency cooperation (and) very good communication at the field level," said Struble, who has observed state departmental collaborative work in Maine for 40 years.

"We also have a highly interested and concerned public," he said. "I think there's a certain mindset that comes when people live from the land and on the land."

"I do feel really hopeful," said Wells, who is tracking both the boreal forest and the experiences of Maine. He points to the continuing land conservation efforts in both countries and the public commitment to preserve wild spaces.

"The First Nations in Canada, especially in the boreal, don't have the same experience of being pushed off their land and onto reservations," he said. "These people are taking the lead in coming up with a vision and land-use plans that are amazing."

"The place that I would look to find hopeful signs, ironically, is to look at our history," St. Pierre said. "There does tend to be a reaction when people understand what is at risk."

"We can't think of ourselves as isolated," he said. "We're right smack dab in the middle of it."

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@mainetoday.com

 

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