Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The History of Maine Part 12: Humans and the Future of Maine

Note: This program first aired on June 15, 2013.

We’re spending a few weeks here on the world around us, tracing the deep history of Maine, from its geological genesis to the current day. We’ve reached the end of this series with a look the general trends of the human impacts on the Maine landscape.

If we had to summarize what happened to Maine as a result of human impact we could summarize it thusly: forest, farm forest. As we have said previously, the post glacial biotic community here is forest, at least in the current climatic regime. That is no surprise, follow the 45th parallel around the globe and what you will find is temperate forest world wide. The composition of that forest has changed over the past 12,000 years, but in the face of any disturbance, trees are what grow back here. We can consider European settlers as a major disturbance to this forest community, their direct impact peaked in the late 19th century, that is the “farm” part of the forest, farm, forest pattern. Since that time for a number of social and economic reasons, the forests have returned (not that they ever actually went that far in the first place).

European settlers first arrived in Maine in the early 17th century and for nearly 150 years enjoyed a precarious existence, eeking out a living tied to the coast line and coastal rivers and estuaries and warring with each other, and with the native population, which had been decimated soon after the Europeans arrived by European pathogens. By 1670 a whopping 3500 English settlers lived along the coast and coastal rivers, west of Penobscot Bay, with additional French settlers to its east. The low population numbers and the instability caused by constant conflict kept the impact of these new human colonists fairly low. Deforestation was strongly limited to the immediate coast, and up river valleys, and consisted of clearing for subsistence agriculture, and targeted harvesting of oak for barrels and white pines for ship masts.

Here is where geopolitics influences ecology. Once the American Revolution settled things and relative stability spread across the area, the population of “not yet Maine” grew dramatically. With this population increase came significant increases in land clearing and forest harvesting. It is important to take a moment and parse out these various levels of human impact. Land cleared for agriculture could be one of three things; land cleared for pasturing grazing animals, land cleared for hay fields and land cleared for tillage and the planting of crops. At its peak in the late 19th century, Maine was as much as 15% cleared for these uses (a number that has only gone back down from that time). Cutting in the forest was targeted at white pine for lumber, hemlock for the tanneries, oaks for barrels and ship building, and other hard woods for fuel wood, for both Maine and the Boston market. Forestry at that time was targeted, clear cutting was not part of the system, and wouldn’t be until the late 20th century.

This boom continued in the 19th century, until the time of the civil war and just after. At that point farms began to be abandoned with amazing speed, as the rail roads opened up the mid west (and their deep rich more easily farmed soils) and the economic center of gravity in America shifted from the Northeast westward. Forestry changed as well, as the best lumber logs became harder and harder to find, it was only the advent of the pulp and paper industry in the late 1800’s that kept the forest industry alive in the state. So Maine, the pine tree state, achieved its cleared land maximum just after the civil war, and has been growing trees back ever since. Even the spruce bud worm out break of the 1970’s and the change to industrial land ownership and subsequent clear cutting  in the second half of the 20th century have not managed to change the undeniable fact, in Maine, if you turn your back, a tree will sprout. It was only through constant back breaking vigilance that Maine was as cleared as it was in the mid 19th century.

Will it always be so? I doubt it. If there is one constant on Earth it is change. Now our actions will be influencing the Maine landscape well beyond clearing for agriculture or cutting trees in the forest. As climate changes in the coming decades, I doubt that Maine will become a treeless landscape, but a thousand years from now? Who knows? The biotic community we see around us is a result of the average temperature and the amount of water that falls from the sky, both factors that stand to be significantly altered by changing climate. So it seems that the tale of humans’ impact on the Maine landscape isn’t finished after all.

And thus concludes our look into the deep history of the Maine landscape. The tale may not be done, but this series is. Keep your eyes open and read the signs in your own neighborhood. You will be amazed, as I have been, where that story takes you.


If this kind of history floats your boat, I can’t recommend this book enough: Andrew Barton and friends The Changing Nature of the Maine Woods. Readable and excellent!

A classic: William Cronin’s Changes in the Land. This one looks at the impact of Native Americans on the primeval forest, and is definitely weighted more towards southern New England. Lots of good information though.

Colin Woodard’s The Lobster Coast provides a comprehensive overview of the history of the people in Maine, particularly along the coast. Though “lobster” is the unifying theme, there is a tremendous amount of environmental history is this book. Very readable, super interesting.

Curious about the future? Check out this report from the UMaine Climate Change Institute: “ Maine’s Climae Future”