In 2018, an international team of scientists published research in the prestigious scientific journal Nature mapping the world’s few remaining wildernesses, defined as contiguous areas of over 10,000 square kilometers not significantly affected by detectable human impacts like agriculture, infrastructure, population density and several others. Unsurprisingly, the results identified places like Alaska, the Amazon rainforest, the Australian Outback and other exotic locations commonly associated with pristine nature. But what caught my eye was a small patch signifying Maine’s North Woods, which were distinguished alongside these other faraway places as among the last remaining intact wildernesses in the world.

Duane Hanson prepares to launch a canoe onto Whipple Pond at his homestead in the North Woods of Maine near T5 R7 in 2019. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

I emailed the study to several family members throughout Maine, inspired by our roots going back a few centuries in Franklin and Somerset counties along the frontier of this wilderness. My fascination was also fostered by having studied Maine’s environmental history in college and frequently visited some of Maine’s wild places. And it was on such a trip to hike The Traveler in Baxter last month that I first heard the radio commercials about the upcoming vote on Central Maine Power’s proposed corridor of high-impact power lines through 53 miles of the North Woods.

Like many, I’ve heard about the CMP corridor on and off in recent years and am glad Mainers will now have a say on it. And while I don’t have such a direct stake, I hold myself responsible as a conservation scientist for communicating information from my field.

The first fact I want to convey is how special Maine’s North Woods are in the 21st century. While the area is not fully removed from human impacts – logging has and still occurs – the relatively low impact on an area this large is unique not just to the highly populated Northeast, but also to the entire continental United States. I have confirmed with the study’s lead, James Watson, and his colleagues Travis Belote and Brooke Williams that only two other wildernesses met their criteria in the Lower Forty-eight: northern Minnesota and the Idaho and Montana Rockies.

The North Woods are critical to the ecological integrity of the eastern woodlands. These kinds of large, connected landscapes provide benefits that smaller fragmented wildernesses more common throughout the Northeast cannot. For the North Woods, when lynx, moose, pine marten and other species were pushed to the brink of extinction in the Northeast, this was their sanctuary from which some have only begun to expand their range over New England once again. These contiguous stretches of forest will become even more important to climate change resilience and adaptation in future years.

But infrastructure including high-impact power lines can undermine that large-scale connectivity. Power corridors can also act as “keystone decisions’” that  catalyze additional development in the surrounding area that can have a far greater impact. So, while direct environmental impacts from the CMP corridor are important to consider, the potential long-term impacts from enabling additional projects and accelerating development in future years could further undermine the North Woods’ status as the last great wilderness in the eastern United States.

This wilderness is also an important piece of Maine’s cultural fabric and reputation as a still-rugged corner of the Northeast, one that also attracts millions of visitors per year wanting to experience nature even if they never venture to this remote area.  But while Mainers certainly have the most at stake, it should also be known that these woods – and thereby any decision concerning them – have been scientifically distinguished as of global importance.

Mainers should be proud of that distinction, and it should be considered among any major decisions regarding this wilderness now and in the future with areas like it becoming increasingly scarce. James Watson and his colleagues have also estimated that 1.9 million square kilometers of similarly intact ecosystems – about the size of Mexico – were lost between 2000 and 2013 alone. Yet this corner of Maine has defied the odds for centuries. I have hope that it will continue to do so.

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