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May 30, 2023 | By:


Chocoura Lake NH

Image by David from Pixabay

This no-holds-barred narrative of the failure of conservation in northern New England’s forests envisions a wilder, more equitable, lower-carbon future for forest-dependent communities.

Jamie Sayen approaches the story of northern New England’s undeveloped forests from the viewpoints of the previously unheard: the forest and the nonhuman species it sustains, the First Peoples, and, in more recent times, the disenfranchised human voices of the forest, including loggers, mill workers, and citizens who, like Henry David Thoreau, wish to speak a kind word for nature.

From 1988 to 2016 paper companies sold their timberlands and closed seventeen paper mills in northern New England. Policy makers ceded veto power to large absentee landowners, who tried to preserve the status quo by demanding additional tax cuts and other subsidies for economic elites. They vetoed measures designed to restore and preserve forest health; at present, about half of the former industrial forests are classified as degraded, and the regional economy continues to be trapped in low-value commodity markets.

This book operates as a case study of how a rural resource region can respond to a global economy responsible for climate change, habitat loss and degradation, and environmental injustice. Sayen offers a blueprint for restoring vast wildlands and transitioning to a lower-carbon, high-value-adding, local economy, while protecting the natural rights of humans, nonhumans, and unborn generations.

Children of the Northern Forest will be published by Yale University Press on January 16, 2024. Books can be purchased directly through YUP’s website here

About the Author

Jamie Sayen is an environmental activist and author of Einstein in America: The Scientist’s Conscience in the Age of Hitler and Hiroshima and You Had a Job for Life: The Story of a Company Town. He lives in Stratford, NH.

Advance Praise

“Jamie Sayen seeks to transform how we understand and pursue human relationships with nature in an era of global change. The lessons that emerge from this book are important at local, national, and global scales.”—David R. Foster, author of A Meeting of Land and Sea and New England Forests Through Time

Children of the Northern Forest examines why more than thirty years of strenuous conservation efforts have failed to protect northern New England’s forest, and presents a vision of a better future for the region and all its creatures.”—Brian Donahue, author of The Great Meadow and Reclaiming the Commons

“No one has labored longer and harder for the protection of the northern forest than Jamie Sayen—from the western edge of the mighty Adirondacks to the vast forests of Maine’s interior he has done the work that earns him the right to tell this story. And he tells it with style, heart, and clarifying insight: it belongs on the shelf of everyone who wanders in these woods.”—Bill McKibben, author The End of Nature 

Excerpt from Children of the Northern Forest,Chapter 17: Fierce Green Fire”

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf….
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.
I realized then, and have known ever since,
that there was something new to me in those eyes—
something known only to her and to the mountain.

—Aldo Leopold, “Thinking like a Mountain”

In the mid-1990s, two respected conservation scientists, Michael Soulé and Reed Noss, promoted a new conservation strategy they called rewilding. They wrote: “Our principal premise is that rewilding is a critical step in restoring self-regulating land communities.” The three characteristics of rewilding are: large, strictly protected core reserves; connectivity between cores; and the restoration of large predators—cores, corridors, and carnivores. “Studies are demonstrating that the disappearance of large carnivores often causes these ecosystems to undergo dramatic changes, many of which lead to biotic simplification and species loss.”

If we protect the habitat needs of wolves and cougars, we protect most of the native plant species and natural communities of the Northern Appalachians, as well as hedging our bets when very large disturbance events, including climate change, occur. Few core areas are large enough to sustain wolves and cougars. We need to connect cores with each other with corridors along rivers, animal migration routes, and other wild pathways. Soulé and Noss asserted rewilding is “scientific realism, assuming that our goal is to insure the long-term integrity of the land community.”1

wolf graphic

Image by Yatheesh Gowda from Pixabay

Where human activity is low, and there is adequate prey, wolves will thrive. A University of Maine wildlife ecologist concluded in 1998 that the 12 million-acres of northern Maine could support a minimum of 488 wolves. The following year, a deer biologist with Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reacted to that study with a shocking memo urging the state to permit hunting and trapping of wolves 365 days a year.

The designation of a network of large reserves throughout North America, coupled with a dramatic reduction in logging intensity and area harvested, is essential to combat climate change and preserve wild nature. In the undeveloped former industrial forests of northern New England, there is an opportunity to establish climate reserves of several million-acres. In 2001, Bill McKibben wrote, “The notion of a rewilded East has moved from the category of hazy hallucination to the category of clear and prophetic vision…. It is, in conservation terms, all of a sudden the most rousing spot on the planet.”3

*          *          *

The Northern Forest Lands Council’s original work plan ignored biodiversity preservation, public land acquisition, and the need to establish a regional network of ecological reserves. In December 1991, the Northern Forest Alliance united to force the Council to address these issues. When the Council released its draft plan in March 1994, Recommendation 13 called for the Northern Forest states to assess conservation lands and, “where necessary, create ecological reserves as a limited public and private component of their public land acquisition and management programs.” New reserves could only be established after “rigorous scientific justification, verified by external peer review.”4

Middlebury College biology professor Stephen Trombulak responded that protecting representative examples of Northern Forest ecosystems fails “because it does not address the issue of restoration of biotic integrity of the region…. because it explicitly states that ecological reserves should be a limited component of public land acquisition strategies…. because it advocates giving sole responsibility for conserving biological diversity to the states…. [and] because it is the only recommendation made by the Council that calls for rigorous justification and external peer review.” Trombulak wrote a successful conservation policy aims for the restoration of extirpated native species, the establishment of large, connected, and buffered reserves, and ecologically responsible forest management practices.5

Finding Common Ground ignored these concerns, and recommended the work of the Maine Forest Biodiversity Project (MFBP) where a “preliminary scientific assessment” had concluded “a reserve system would be limited in size, encompassing only a small portion of the landscape.”6 The MFBP, led by Council-member Roger Milliken, adopted a “consensus” strategy to protect a few, small, representative examples of Maine’s natural communities. When I challenged the Project to adopt the goal of preserving ecosystem integrity, Milliken refused. I turned to University of Maine at Orono biology professor Malcolm Hunter and asked if a system of representative reserves would protect the state’s ecological integrity. He answered, “No.”

vermont forest

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

In January 1996, the Maine Natural Areas Program produced a report for the MFBP, Biological Diversity in Maine, that highlighted a number of troubling findings:

  • Little is known of insects, arachnids, and other invertebrate phyla, but populations of most invertebrate species native to Maine are probably shrinking.
  • The state of our knowledge of bryophytes (mosses, etc.), lichens, fungi, and protista (algae, protozoa) ranges from “not well known” to “very poorly known.”
  • There was no long-term monitoring data on amphibians, a class experiencing documented declines in eastern states.
  • Reptiles are facing greater threats than amphibians.
  • Fish have been more severely affected by human activity perhaps than any other group of organisms.
  • Data on nongame mammals is sparse.
  • “Good natural examples” of even the most common forest types, such as the spruce-fir forests that dominate the northern half of the state, are “rare.”
  • “Perhaps the most disturbing finding in terms of biodiversity trends is an apparent elimination, for many years at least, of [invertebrate] species considered to require mature forests.”7

In 2001, Maine established 13 ecological reserves covering 68,974 acres on state-owned lands located in the industrial forest region—about 0.3 percent of the area of the entire state. Reserve size averaged 5,300 acres, and 69 percent of the reserved lands could not sustain timber harvesting because of elevation, slope, wetlands, or water. The state allowed all-terrain vechiles to stir up mud and dust within reserve areas. The remainder  of Maine has still not been evaluated for a state-wide ecological reserve network. An assessment of the effectiveness of land conservation in Maine in 2010 determined most of state’s high ecological value lands remain outside reserves and easement lands. Designated reserves are too small, isolated, and fragmented to maintain viable populations of most species and are inadequately buffered from managed lands.8

New Hampshire adopted a more progressive approach to ecological reserves: aim for the preservation of ecological integrity. In 1998, the Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) to the NH Ecological Reserves Steering Committee (ERSC) concluded there was “an urgent and scientifically-established need for concerted conservation” of the state’s biodiversity. SAG recommended the “establishment of a well-coordinated, comprehensive system of ecological reserves that, in conjunction with good management of commercial timberlands, wildlife populations, and watersheds, will protect the full spectrum of biological diversity in the state over the long term.” The Scientific Advisory Group found that almost 60 percent of the rare natural communities and nearly three-quarters of the known rare plants have two or fewer occurrences on conservation lands.9 Initially, the Directors of NH Forests and Lands and NH Fish and Game encouraged the Ecological Reserves Steering Committee to develop a statewide reserve network.

A few months later, a core group, composed of New Hampshire Fish & Game, the Division of Forests and Lands, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society of New Hampshire, and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, dissolved the Ecological Reserves Steering Committee and quietly buried the Scientific Advisory Group’s report. Two decades later, New Hampshire has no ecological reserves system.

The politicization of the Maine Forest Biodiversity Project, coupled with the Northern Forest Alliance’s unwillingness to propose a reserve strategy for the industrial forest, provoked me to ask: “How large can reserves be in northern New England?” As a first step, I mapped the region’s absentee-owned lands and drew in all major state roads, such as Route 201 from Skowhegan to Jackman and Route 16 from Errol, New Hampshire to Flagstaff Lake in Maine. I excluded managed lands whose owners reside in the community. This exercise identified 16 core reserves that encompass the headwaters of northern New England’s great rivers —the Connecticut, Androscoggin, Kennebec, Penobscot, Allagash, and St. John.

Maine, Eagle Lake

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

In the summer 1995, I proposed an 8.7 million-acre HEADWATERS Wilderness Reserve System covering most of northern Maine and significant chunks of northern New Hampshire and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.10 It included the entirety of the proposed Maine Woods National Park. Imagine a national park surrounded by another five million-acres of unmanaged wildlands.

The HEADWATERS proposal, more than four times the size of Yellowstone National Park, is large enough to withstand the largest natural disturbance regimes. When implemented, it would protect habitat for nearly all rare plant and animal species native to northern New England. It provides optimal conditions for the return of ecologically viable populations of cougar, lynx, wolf, and caribou. The HEADWATERS Reserves offer unknown microflora and fauna—soil microbes, fungi, and invertebrates—a fighting chance to survive, recover, thrive, evolve, and someday, studied and catalogued by naturalists.

Climate change exacerbates habitat loss. For many climate-stressed species, dispersal may be the best, or only, option for survival. At more than 200 miles along its north-south axis, the HEADWATERS would provide temperature-sensitive plants and animals with unfragmented pathways to more climate friendly northern habitats. Even if climate change drives the Acadian Forest out of New England, HEADWATERS can mitigate the loss of genetic diversity of species near the southern limits of their range and optimize the carbon sequestration and storage capabilities of these lands.

Existing public lands would remain under current state, federal, or non-profit conservation organization management. The Maine Woods National Park, if established, would be managed by the National Park Service.

The HEADWATERS network would connect scattered public land holdings from the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Baxter State Park, and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument to Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, the White Mountain National Forest, and the Conte National Wildlife Refuge, along with many smaller state units. HEADWATERS could connect with reserves in eastern Canada, the Green Mountains, and the Adirondacks as part of a continental network of reserves.


Image by Dylan Alvis from Pixabay

Since 1995, a small percentage of the lands included in the HEADWATERS proposal have been preserved as wildlands. Implementation of the HEADWATERS vision today would not alter the status of such lands. Lands under conservation easements will, hopefully, become wildlands in the near future.

A 2019 study from the University of New Hampshire concluded more than half of the forest land in northern New England is in a degraded condition. A Harvard Forest study that year warned if current industrial-scale timber management practices persist over the next half century, the industrial forests of northern New England will be responsible for 68 percent of all of the greenhouse gases emitted from managed forests in New England.11 Northern New England’s former industrial forests, on average are approaching 30-50 years of age. They are primed to begin to sequester carbon at an impressive rate, and are excellent candidates for passive management for the next two centuries, at least.

The highest and best uses of the former industrial timber lands are for carbon sequestration and storage and wildlife habitat. Enacting the HEADWATERS proposal eliminates the single greatest source of forest carbon emissions in the region, and transforms the former industrial forest from a carbon source to a sink with great potential to pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it for centuries to come.

*          *          *

In the 2010s, timber investors, such as university endowments and hedge funds, began to turn away from investing in the Northern Forests. The absentee land speculators who acquired much of the former paper company lands are now anxious to unload their degraded lands. Unless attractive new subsidies are in the offing, savvy investors will continue to shy away from overpriced, poorly-stocked lands.

As they grow desperate to sell poorly performing timberland investments, landowners may accept offers from the federal government or wildlands philanthropists that reflect the land’s true market value. On easement lands, the value of the land is in its standing timber, and the price paid for an easement must be subtracted from the acquisition price. A poorly-stocked acre ought to fetch considerably less than the $375 an acre John Malone paid GMO Renewable Resources in 2011.

The transition from industrial forest to HEADWATERS Reserve will not happen overnight, but it is time to start the process. In the next decade, the public could acquire a considerable amount of timberland from TIMOs. Not all large timberland owners are eager to sell out today, particularly the Pingree Heirs, Irving, and Malone. Ending subsidies to speculators, clear-cutters, wood chippers, and raw log exporters ought to diminish the allure of investing in New England’s former industrial forest lands.

Ambitious public land acquisition initiatives need not raise our taxes or force the treasury to print money, provided we adopt honest accounting practices to internalize externalities and redirect harmful subsidies toward public land acquisition. As former northern New England paper company lands come on the market, the public should acquire them and enroll them in the HEADWATERS Wilderness Reserve System.

*          *          *

1 Michael Soulé and Reed Noss, “Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation,” Wild Earth 8, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 18-28.

2 Daniel J. Harrison, Theodore B. Chapin, “An Assessment of Potential Habitat for Eastern Timber Wolves in the Northeastern United States and Connectivity with Occupied Habitat in Southeastern Canada,” Wildlife Conservation Society Working Paper, 1997, 6. https://global.wcs.org/Resources/Publications/Publications-Search-II/ctl/view/mid/13340/pubid/DMX548900000.aspx Last accessed September 27, 2022; Gerry Lavigne, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Deer Biologist, memo, June 28, 1999. See Kristen DeBoer, “North Woods Riddle: How Does Weakening Protection for Wolves Help Them Recover?” Northern Forest Forum 8, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 8.

3 Bill McKibben, “Epilogue,” in Klyza, ed., Wilderness Comes Home, 276.

4 NFLC, Finding Common Ground: The Draft Recommendations of the Northern Forest Lands Council, March 1994: 45-47.

5 Stephen C. Trombulak, “Why Recommendation 13 Won’t Protect Biotic Integrity and What Must Be Done to Fix It,” Northern Forest Forum 2, no. 5 (Letter Writers Guide Special Issue April 1994): 6-7.

6 NFLC, Finding Common Ground, 61-63.

7 Susan C. Gawler, et. al., Biological Diversity in Maine, 10, 30, 31, 35-36, 38, 71, 26.

8 Press Release: Maine Department of Conservation, January 9, 2001, “Department of Conservation Establishes Maine’s First Ecological Reserves,” Northern Forest Forum 8, no. 6 (Candlemas 2001): 11; Mitch Lansky, “An Ecological Reserve System for Maine: Are We Really Making Progress,” Northern Forest Forum 9, no. 1 (Fall 2001): 18-20; Christopher S. Cronan, Robert J. Lilieholm, Jill Tremblay, and Timothy Glidden, “An Assessment of Land Conservation Patterns in Maine Based on Spatial Analysis of Ecological and Socioeconomic Indicators,” Environmental Management (April 6, 2010).

9 Steering Committee of the New Hampshire Ecological Reserve System Project, “Protecting New Hampshire’s Living Legacy: A Blueprint for Biodiversity Conservation in the Granite State,” (Concord, NH: New Hampshire Ecological Reserves System Project, July 1998), 3; Scientific Advisory Group, New Hampshire Ecological Reserve System Project, “An Assessment of the Biodiversity of New Hampshire with Recommendations for Conservation Action,” (Concord, NH: New Hampshire Ecological Reserves System Project, July 1998), 28.

10 See Northern Forest Forum 3, no. 5 (Headwaters Restoration 1995). In 1995, I estimated the size of the Headwaters was 8 million acres. More precise measurements put the figure at 8.7 million acres. https://harvardforest1.fas.harvard.edu/sites/harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/files/publications/nff/V3N5.pdf. Last accessed September 27, 2022

11 Gunn et al, “Evaluating degradation in a North American Temperate Forest,” 421-423; Matthew J. Duveneck and Jonathan R. Thompson, “Social and Biophysical determinants of future forest conditions in New England: Effects of a modern land use regime,” Global Environmental Change, 55(2019) 125. https://harvardforest1.fas.harvard.edu/sites/harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/files/publications/pdfs/Duveneck_ GlobEnvChange_2019.pdf Last accessed September 27, 2022

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1 year ago

Dear Friends,

I am co-owner of 150 acres in southern Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I am wondering what type of re-wilding we can do on a parcel of land this size. We have woodlands, pasture, meadow, wetlands, farming fields and creeks that fed a former pond. Can we at least attract species that have not been present on this land for many years? How would I create a re-wilding plan? We are a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization that teaches sustainable farming, and ecology, “Snipes Farm and Education Center.”

Thank you for any advice you can give me. Jonathan Snipes, Executive Director.

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