At AMC’s Pleasant River Headwater Forest, science and stewardship generate community impact

Written By: Gavriela Mallory

Last month, Maine’s Forest Climate Change Initiative (FCCI) wrapped up its third year of community learning with a field tour at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pleasant River Headwaters Forest. FCCI is a collaborative effort between Maine TREE Foundation, the Forest Stewards Guild, and UMaine’s Center for Research on Sustainable Forests (CRSF). The FCCI webinar and field tour series aims to facilitate discussion and learning around the impact of climate change on Maine’s forests and the work that researchers and practitioners are doing to address it. 

Embedded in Maine’s North Woods, Pleasant River Headwaters Forest has supported and been stewarded by human communities for well over 10,000 years. Wabanaki Peoples have fished Atlantic salmon and alewives in the West Branch of the Pleasant River and collected red ochre from Ore Mountain for hundreds of generations. 

FCCI participants gather by the Katahdin Ironworks gate

Two-hundred years after colonizers first settled in Maine, Katahdin Ironworks Township was established here to mine and smelt iron at an industrial scale. Twenty-eight thousand acres of the surrounding woodlands were clearcut to produce the charcoal needed to maintain the Township’s blast furnace. The tract was acquired by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in 2022 as part of their Maine Woods Initiative, an effort to restore habitat, foster thoughtful recreation, sink carbon, and support local economies in Maine’s North Woods.

AMC’s stewardship of this 27,000-acre property is multifold. FCCI tour participants began their day at a completed culvert-to-bridge project, part of a network of nearly 100 sites where AMC has facilitated stream reconnection in recent years. The outcome: Atlantic salmon and alewives have returned to the watershed for the first time since the 1840s. As the largest contiguous forest in the eastern seaboard, this habitat holds global significance as a breeding ground for Atlantic salmon, alewives, and eastern brook trout.

Tour participants visited one of a large network of culvert-to-bridge projects AMC has facilitated in the region

The next stop was one of AMC’s ecoreserves. Management is limited in these areas to maintain the wildness of one of the least developed river corridors in Maine. Limited harvest additionally serves to promote the carbon sequestration capacity of older ecosystems. Tour participants walked down from the road, coming out into a stand of sky-high silver maples and a carpet of ostrich fern and spring ephemerals. While AMC limits activities in ecoreserve areas, Wabanaki Tribes maintain access and harvesting rights of these lands.

Complimenting the ecoreserve approach, AMC and their partners actively manage much of Pleasant River Headwaters Forest. With an eye towards the largely early successional surrounding woodlands, AMC’s forestry staff use early intervention silviculture to favor longer-lived species and develop old-growth characteristics on the landscape. Here, management allows AMC to diversify forest structure, broadening biodiversity in the region. 

FCCI participants explore one of AMC’s ecoreserves

Weaving through each of these approaches to stewardship is AMC’s commitment to employing science as a tool to inform practice and foster understanding of the outdoors. Stream research at Pleasant River Headwaters Forest allows AMC to describe stream reconnection efforts’ impact more accurately and prioritize initiatives going forward. Climate sensors on site, in particular stations installed through the CRSF’s INSPIRES program, allow the organization to track temperature, humidity, and snow depth, contributing to state-wide efforts to monitor climate change. Relationships with local teachers and citizen science initiatives bolster the impact of AMC’s research efforts. Through inviting students, recreators, and community members into data collection efforts and conversations about findings, AMC fosters understanding of the natural world, climate change, and the tools we have available to study and steward the landscapes we depend on. 

Trout lilies were among many spring ephemerals spotted by tour participants

As the day at Pleasant River Headwaters Forest ended, participants shared takeaways from the third year of FCCI field tours and conversations about climate change and Maine’s forests. Reflections touched on the power of science to inform practice across Maine’s landscape and the power of collaboration to understand the intricacy of challenges and identify creative approaches to addressing them. 

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