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A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time.

To store greenhouse gases, Maine looks to protect more than 2 Rhode Islands' worth of forest by 2030

An aerial view of the Swift Cambridge River in Grafton Township, Maine.
Jerry Monkman
An aerial view of the Swift Cambridge River in Grafton Township, Maine.

Around the world, the push is on for large-scale conservation. Scientists say at least 30% of lands, fresh water and oceans need protection by 2030 to slow global warming and prevent species extinctions.

The ambitious 30 x 30 goal is part of President Biden's climate agenda. It's also a target in Maine, the most heavily forested state in the country. And there's cautious optimism the target can be met.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

First, a bit of math. Tim Glidden, outgoing president of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, says depending on how you calculate it, Maine has conserved about 4 million acres of land so far. That's about 21%.

"That would include all the public lands, federal and state, and there's some local lands as well as lands conserved by private organizations like MCHT and lands protected by conservation easement," he says.

Under an arrangement known as an easement, land remains in private ownership but development rights are extinguished. To get to 30% in the next eight years, Maine will need to protect nearly 2 million more acres. That's an area more than twice the size of Rhode Island. It's a big number, and Glidden says conservation groups will need funding and they'll need to be strategic.

"And now really redouble our efforts if we're going to make the 30 x 30 goal," he says.

As an example of how this can work, Tom Duffus of The Conservation Fund points to rural Oxford County, Maine, which includes part of the White Mountain National Forest, the Appalachian trail, three downhill ski areas and abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation such as hiking and snowmobiling.

These same amenities have fueled the red-hot real estate market during the pandemic, which is why Duffus was thrilled when 12,000 acres of forestlands in the area were recently protected from development with a conservation easement.

"Really, it comes right down to the landowners being eager and willing and having the forethought to look well beyond their own lifetime," he says.

Landowners Mary McFadden and Larry Stifler had been quietly acquiring parcels over the past four decades, allowing their trees to grow. Forests help absorb greenhouse gases. They also support clean water, wildlife and biodiversity. Stifler says development pressure made the timing right for the couple to put their land in an easement that maintains ecological and wildlife conservation values along with public access on miles of coveted trails. A coalition of local land trusts and other groups helped finance the project.

"We don't have a whole lot of time to secure this land, 'cause once it's developed you can't go the other way. Somebody asked me once why I put more money into land than let's say rivers. You can always reclaim rivers. You can't reclaim the land once it's been fragmented," Larry Stifler says.

When it comes to large-scale conservation, 12,000 acres might not seem like a large number, but that's only part of the story in western Maine. Just north of McFadden and Stifler's property is another 15,000 acres that is being protected from fragmentation and development but also sustainably managed for timber.

Workers selectively harvest wood at the Chadbourne Tree Farm property, which The Conservation Fund and it's subsidiary LLC have purchased to conserve.
Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Workers selectively harvest wood at the Chadbourne Tree Farm property, which The Conservation Fund and its subsidiary LLC have purchased to conserve.

"Right now, we're standing in the Chadbourne Tree Farm property that The Conservation Fund and its subsidiary LLC bought," says Duffus.

As a chainsaw helps bring down a tree, he says, "And that is the sound of improving the forest and a sound of providing jobs and making sure that this forest can adapt as the climate changes as well."

Duffus says only a portion of this historic white pine forest will be harvested. It's been a working forest supporting local jobs that has been owned and managed by the same family since the 1600s. The Conservation Fund is now working with local land trusts and the U.S. Forest Service to complete the purchase of an easement for the parcels that are adjacent to other conserved lands and to the 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest on the New Hampshire border.

"White Mountain National Forest is right over there, so we're really stitching together a wonderful, landscape-scale effort here in just a couple of transactions," he says.

Karin Tilberg of the Forest Society of Maine, a statewide land trust, says conservation easements are a big reason Maine has been able to conserve as much land as it has over the past two decades. For years, Tilberg says, Maine had less than 10% of its land-base conserved. But in the late 1990s, because of changes in the global market and financial pressures, paper companies in Maine began rapidly selling off their vast holdings of forest lands.

"And many of the sales went to buyers known as TIMOs — Timber Investment Management Organizations," she says.

These investors, Tilberg says, were open to selling land to conservation groups and to selling conservation easements which allows forest management to continue.

"And that has opened this door for, you know, really the big jump from 6-7% of Maine being conserved to 21%. So, I think it's very reasonable that we could go from 21% to 30% in the next nine years," she says.

Tilberg's group is currently working to conserve another 21,000 acres in northern Oxford County known as the Grafton Forest Project which is surrounded by other protected lands in Maine and New Hampshire.

Having a large, connected landscape will be important for wildlife, including birds and fish as temperatures warm, and it comes at a time when Maine is losing more than 10,000 acres to development every year. But Tilberg says she's encouraged by the buzz she's hearing from landowners who seem to be more conservation-minded than ever.

So is Kirk Siegel of the Mahoosuc Land Trust in western Maine.

"Thirty years ago, if you'd asked me about 30 x 30 being a realistic goal, I would have laughed. Suddenly, there's, you know, a new level of landscape conservation that is happening. So I'm way more optimistic than I would have been, but it's going to be a lot of work," he says.

Over the past year, more than 50,000 acres have been protected in Maine. And Tilberg says she's aware of another couple of projects that could bring in 50,000 more.