Maine's Wildlife Legacy
Habitat is the place where a plant or animal lives; it includes everything a plant or animal needs to survive and reproduce. With every land use decision, we inevitably alter available habitat opportunities. When a forest is felled or field abandoned, habitat is changed. Opportunites for some species are lost, while new opportunities open for others. However, when natural areas are converted to more permanent land uses such as roads and houses, habitat functions disappear.
When natural habitat is lost or degraded, we lose biological diversity and a landscape that has been part of our Maine heritage, communities, and sense of place. We lose a very personal connection with our natural world, one that provides enrichment, recreation, and surprise. Maine, without its rich landscape of plant and animal life, is just not Maine.
Maine's natural areas and habitats are also the backbone of our economy. Deciding where and how we concentrate conservation efforts is as important to our future competitiveness as where we designate growth areas.
What's Been Lost...And Why
It is simplistic to say that development of land is the cause of habitat loss and the decline of species. More accurately, the pattern of our poorly planned development is causing these problems. We are spreading farther and farther out, consuming and fragmenting natural habitats as we scatter homes around the rural countryside. (Fragmentation of habitat occurs when roads, utility corridors, buildings, and parking lots break the natural landscape into smaller and smaller blocks.)
Historically, Maine's development pattern was based on the town center with homes nearby so that it was practical to walk to the town hall, store, and post office. Farms were thinly scattered on rural roads. Forests for hunting and wood gathering, and lakes and streams for fishing, were not far from the town centers. Small areas of the landscape were converted for residential and commercial purposes and large contiguous areas were left untouched by development.
Today's development, sprawled across the landscape rather than concentrated in and around town centers, is contributing to the loss of habitat, neighborhoods and meaningful outdoor experiences.
Habitat loss may be swift, as in the case of a large subdivision, or it may be incremental through development of individual lots. Either way, it is happening in your town from the cumulative effects of perfectly legal developments, and it is altering a very special Maine outdoor legacy.
Benefits for Health, Recreation, Community & Economy
Wildlife and plant habitats are part of a rich, complex web of natural cycles. High quality habitat preserves biological diversity by providing an assortment of environments in which plants and animals live. Conserved fish, wildlife, and plant habitat also provides storm water management and flood control features. Natural processes that we take for granted, such as pollination, seed dispersal, and the cycling of valuable nutrients that replenish soil, air and water systems, all depend on the ability of various species to interact successfully with one another and their necessary habitats.
Animal and plant communities are indicators of environmental quality and health. Like the canaries that warned of deadly gas in the coalmines, degraded habitats are an early warning system that alerts us to threats that may affect our own health.
Fish, wildlife, and plant habitat enhances air and water quality and preserves the appeal and character of the human community as well. Property values are maintained and improved through the conservation of habitat. Real estate values for properties near or abutting shorelines are enhanced when water quality is properly protected by buffers and filtering vegetation that guarantees clear, clean water.
The most desired community amenity, after good schools, is open space, greenway and trail systems, and planning that results in maintaining a community's unique character. In Maine, most towns could preserve their unique character by conserving the coastal, forest, farm, and waterway habitats that have always defined and complemented their traditional settlements. Economists are now able to prove that the preservation of community character (especially architectural and landscape conservation) is a strong indicator of the long-term, economic health of a community.
Habitat conservation also delivers other strong economic benefits to Maine communities. In 2006, the economic impact of wildlife recreation in Maine totaled over 1.5 billion dollars. Hunting, trapping, fishing, and wildlife watching combined, have dwarfed Maine's other recreation industries. Wildlife recreation has a larger economic impact than all skiing, whitewater rafting, snowmobiling, windjammer cruises, or other recreational attractions... combined! Wildlife-generated revenues even surpass the economic value of Maine's commercial fishing industry. Maine's various habitats also deliver another special bonus, our "second paycheck." Living in Maine allows us to duck hunt before breakfast, bird watch at lunch, collect fiddleheads after school, or bike through forest paths and maybe spot a moose before dinner. Clearly, the reason many people stay in Maine or move to Maine is this "second" outdoor "paycheck."
What If We Do Nothing?
Unabated sprawl will fragment the remaining natural habitat left on the landscape, isolating and degrading the value of smaller patches that remain. Beyond the direct loss of habitat to buildings and parking lots, fragmentation of habitat may isolate some populations of plants and animals so that they may not be able to travel, feed, or reproduce. Eventually, it will lead to the elimination of many local populations of plants and animals. Larger populations of many common native species will decline. Fragmentation also creates an edge effect where the disturbed areas between developed land and natural habitat are more easily colonized by non-native plants. Some of the state's most rare plant communities have already been lost or altered by development in southern Maine. As fragmentation continues, rare species will be pushed to the brink of extinction.
Because Maine residents also use these habitat areas for outdoor enjoyment, they will see fewer opportunities for recreation. Large blocks of relatively unfragmented habitat necessary to maintain populations of larger animals will become scarce. Fishing, hunting, walking in the woods or along the beach, wildlife watching, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and other outdoor activities will continue to be squeezed into smaller, less accessible areas. In some communities, these opportunities will disappear altogether. Roads, back yards, fences, power lines, parking lots, and "no trespassing" signs will constantly remind us of what we have lost.
Until recently, abundant habitat and open space were a fortunate accident of Maine's development patterns. These areas were not parks or public spaces; they were large blocks of privately owned land supported by a generous Maine tradition of public access to many private lands. In other words, our outdoor Maine way of life, in most cases, has been supported by the state's private landowners. With development pressures and tax burdens, many landowners have decided to sell or subdivide their properties. The fortunate accident of having private land available for habitat and recreation is ending. While state and federal laws provide protections for our most endangered animal species, there is no guaranteed protection for much of the habitat and open space within most of our communities.
There Are Solutions!
There is still time to keep new species from becoming so rare they merit listing as Endangered in Maine. There is still time to locate and conserve habitat that will allow us to enjoy the plants, animals, and recreation we value.
If continued development of Maine is done thoughtfully, it will be located in appropriate areas that are efficient to serve with existing infrastructure and that minimize future habitat fragmentation. At the same time, strategic conservation efforts with willing landowners will protect valuable open space that continues to provide fish, wildlife, and plant habitat, farming and forestry opportunities, as well as outdoor recreation.
The most important first step to protecting habitat is knowledge. Where are the populations of rare wild garlic or northern blazing star? Where are the deer wintering areas? Where are the wood ducks and cottontails breeding and feeding? Where are the vernal pools so necessary for frogs and salamanders? Where is the highest value habitat for rare and declining species of migratory birds? What large blocks of quality habitat remain in each town and how could they be connected with wildlife and trail corridors to other large blocks in neighboring towns? What plants and animals depend on undeveloped shoreline habitat and is the community's shoreland zoning ordinance adequate and well enforced?
Beginning with Habitat will help you answer those questions. Contact us for more information.