Public Reserved Lands
What are Public Reserved Lands?
Maine has approximately 600,000 acres of Public Reserved Lands in 37 separate parcels located across the state. These lands are enjoyed for their outstanding hiking, camping, birding, fishing, and hunting opportunities. They include the Bigelow Preserve, Kennebec Highlands, Tumbledown, Cutler’s Bold Coast, Donnell Pond, Debouillie, Mount Abraham, and other Maine gems. (Please check out this map from the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry to see the full list.)
How are Public Reserved Lands Managed and Maintained?
Maine’s Public Reserved Lands are managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) for multiple uses, including wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and sustainable timber harvesting.
Maine’s Public Reserved Lands include some of the best, largest, and oldest trees in the state. Stands with big, old trees are not only economically valuable, but they also provide some of the best remaining habitat in Maine’s forests for those plant, bird, and mammal species that thrive in older forests.
For most of its history, BPL has harvested timber from Public Reserved Lands’ forests in a sustainable manner, improving both the quality and the quantity of timber on those lands. Under the LePage Administration, however, Public Reserved Lands were regularly under attack: the former governor attempted to increase timber harvesting to unsustainable levels and needlessly restructure public land management. The LePage Administration also attempted to siphon off essential funding from harvests to be used for unrelated purposes. Fortunately, these attacks were largely unsuccessful.
Management of Maine’s Public Reserved Lands is entirely funded by revenues generated from the lands themselves, primarily from timber harvesting. All of the roads, trails, campsites, picnic tables, and other recreational infrastructure; all wildlife habitat and ecological protection activities; and all timber management and harvesting activities on Public Reserved Lands are paid for by the lands themselves. No taxpayer funds are used.
We expect that the Bureau of Parks and Lands, under Governor Mills’ leadership, will return to harvesting timber at sustainable levels. We urge BPL to uphold the law and use funds from harvested timber to support the Public Reserved Lands system.
How are Public Reserved Lands Acquired?
Maine’s 600,000 acres of Public Reserved Lands are a unique state resource. Their origin dates back to the separation of Maine from Massachusetts in 1820. In 1820, the state set aside lots in each unincorporated township from private sale in order for this land to provide various public benefits. In the 1970s, these dispersed public lots were consolidated into the spectacular Public Reserved Land System that we have today. These consolidated lots provide timber, protect wildlife habitat, and offer a wide variety of public recreational opportunities. These lands are held in public trust and managed for public use and enjoyment.
Additional public funding for acquiring new Public Reserved Lands comes from the Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) program, the federal Forest Legacy Program, or from private philanthropic donations. NRCM strongly supports all of these funding sources. Please read more about why NRCM supports revitalizing the LMF program through a $75 million bond.
On August 11, 2000, a Maine state statue took effect creating the Ecological Reserve System, managed by the Maine Natural Areas Program within the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL). Ecological reserves were established for three primary purposes:
- To serve as a benchmark for environmental and biological change over time.
- To protect habitat for wildlife.
- To function as a site for research and education.
The State, by establishing the Ecological Reserve System, intended to acquire land representative of the 115 different ecotypes in each of the different biophysical regions that are found throughout the state. As of 2020, 17 sites – each of which are segments of Public Reserved Land – covering more than 90,000 acres comprise the Ecological Reserve System. Many protect or are on the same tract of land as signature features of Maine’s landscape, like Bigelow Preserve and the Mahoosucs Unit.
Ecological Reserves are special places. They are not managed for a certain output or result and are less used by the general public than the Public Reserved Lands or state parks. Unlike other public lands in Maine, Ecological Reserves often permit fewer and primarily low-impact recreational activities in order to protect the land’s character and natural processes.
Ecological Reserves are often used as study areas by researchers, from Maine and beyond, to track change over time. Much like an experimental control, the Reserves serve as a baseline compared to lands that have changed ownership and management over the years or have been altered for human use. The only forest harvest that takes place on Ecological Reserves is "salvage harvesting" to remove dead or damaged trees in order to recover economic value that would otherwise be lost.
The Maine Forest Biodiversity Project, spearheaded in the 1990s by Janet McMahon, produced a report in 1998 that identified 69 potential reserve sites covering 498,700 acres, or just 2% of the state's total land area. In 2005, the Bureau of Public Land’s (BPL) Maine Natural Areas Program examined how well habitat and ecotypes are represented across all conservation lands in the state. The resulting report, Saving All the Parts: A Conservation Vision for Maine Using Ecological Land Units, concluded that fewer than half of the habitat and ecotypes are adequately represented in geographic regions where they occur in Maine.
Ecological Reserves serve the incredibly important role of building natural resilience in the face of climate change and countless other pressures, like development and pollution. The job of protecting the unique environmental and biological parts of Maine that can be strongholds for climate resilience is not done.
Unfortunately, the law creating Ecological Reserves limited the amount of land that can be designated under the program to 100,000 acres or 15% of land in BPL’s jurisdiction. That’s one-fifth of the land the Maine Forest Biodiversity Project proposed would be needed. That statutory limitation is preventing important conservation from being accomplished and should be removed so BPL has the option of acquiring more Ecological Reserve land.
Ecological Reserves are not free from disturbance, but they are meant to reduce human impact as much as practicable. Some sites are home to fantastic backcountry camping, snowshoeing, and fishing, but visitors should be sure to check the rules for any Ecological Reserve they are interested in visiting to know what uses are permitted at that location.
Keeping these last vestiges of wilderness thriving helps keep our air and water clean, improves aquatic health, provides habitat connectivity for wildlife (especially important for sensitive species), cycles nutrients, stores carbon, and delivers immeasurable other benefits to people and wildlife.
Maine has 48 State Parks and Historic Sites, protecting more than 100,000 acres of land and offering diverse recreational opportunities throughout the state.*
With gems including Aroostook State Park, Mount Kineo, Rangeley Lakes, Grafton Notch, Bradbury Mountain, Crescent Beach, and Quoddy Head, Maine’s State Parks are very popular: the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands recently announced that 2018 saw the highest visitation ever to the Maine State Parks system. Close to 3 million total visits marked an 11 percent increase over visitation in 2017.
At the same time, Maine State Parks currently have a $50 million maintenance backlog. Considering both the success of our State Parks System and its needs for repairs, NRCM believes that $20 million in bond funding for State Parks’ infrastructure is needed to make meaningful progress at decreasing this backlog and providing a high quality experience for park visitors. It would ensure that the State can immediately make high priority repairs so that Maine residents and tourists alike have safe, accessible, and positive visits to Maine’s protected lands.
For a longer-term solution to the maintenance backlog, NRCM supports dedicating a percentage of revenues generated from park visits to maintaining the quality and safety of State Parks, roads, and facilities.
*Baxter State Park is a separate entity from the State Park System, as it has an independent management structure.
Banner photo: View from Bigelow. Photo by Pete Didisheim