Maine High Peaks Initiative: an opportunity to assess the impact of climate change in large landscape conservation

Maine High Peaks Initiative:  an opportunity to assess the impact of climate change in large landscape conservation

The focal area of the Maine High Peaks Initiative serves multiple local and regional conservation, monitoring, and research roles under current and future climatic regimes.  The 230,000-acre landscape extent of the area is sufficient in size on its own to support viable plant and animal populations from the full spectrum of northern hardwood ecological communities transitioning to boreal ecological communities.  Furthermore, the area is a vital ecological, habitat, and landscape linkage uniting ecological pattern and process across the Acadian forest region spanning the Adirondacks, New England states, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces.

Patterns of human land use and development to the north and south have contributed to its significance to regional connectivity.  In the face of climate change, this area has great potential as a point of landscape and ecological linkage likely to be important to the necessary range shifts of animal and plant populations from the south to the north.

The area’s multiple conservation and research roles all derive from the combined effects of mountain and lowland topography and latitudinal position within the transitional northern forest. This High Peaks Region is so named because it has 10 of Maine’s 14 peaks over 4000 feet.  This landscape includes hardwood, mixed wood, and softwood forests across the mountain gradient and the plant and animal communities associated with these topographic conditions and broad forest cover types.  Because of the Appalachian Trail, the Navy Survival Center and topography, there are no north-south roads through this 230,000 acres area. Ecological diversity ranging from riparian ecosystems supporting anadromous fish to alpine zones where blackpoll warbler and Bicknell’s thrush breed provide a ready-made long-term ecological study area likely to provide early signals of climate change impacts on biological diversity and range shifts.

The size, physical and ecological diversity, the transitional position at the continental scale, and natural cover in the context of human land use change, elevate this conservation initiative to national significance under current conditions.  Under a changing climate, its potential to facilitate plant and animal range shifts through its lowland and high elevation ecosystems further adds to its long-term conservation value.  As a likely signal of ecological responses to climate change, this site is ideal for early detection of climate change effects and long term data to assist conservation planning across the continent.

Peter McKinley, Ph.D., Conservation Biologist, in conversation with Lloyd Griscom.

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