Friday, April 23, 2010

New Guide Helps Identify Maine’s Natural Communities

It’s easy to say – almost to the point of being clichéd -- that Maine people live in a unique region of the U.S., but two state ecologists are proving just that with a new book that’s just been published.
Susan C. Gawler, regional vegetation ecologist with NatureServe, a non-profit conservation science organization, and Andrew Cutko, a Maine Natural Areas Program (MNAP) ecologist with the Maine Department of Conservation, are co-authors of “Natural Landscapes of Maine: A Guide to Natural Communities and Ecosystems,” recently published by MNAP.
The new guidebook outlines and defines the 104 distinct, natural communities of which the state is comprised, proving just how special Maine really is. From the rare-to-Maine alpine bogs found in the Mahoosucs to the globally rare riverside seeps on the St. John River, Maine has some truly unusual landscapes, and Cutko and Gawler are helping everyone from conservationists to teachers to backyard naturalists discover that fact.
“We recognize that Maine is a special place that many people take for granted,” Cutko said recently. “Part of the message of the book is to give readers a real sense of place about where they live.”
“Conservation practitioners can use this as a technical guide, but more broadly, people who love the outdoors and the natural beauty of Maine can learn more about its diversity both statewide and close to home,” Gawler said. “There’s so much to see when you look closely! Appreciating the diversity of Maine’s habitats is the first step in their conservation and sensible use.”
The unique field guide has been more than10 years in preparation and came about when Gawler and Cutko perceived different needs for clear, concise information about the various habitats in Maine. A licensed forester by training, Cutko pointed out that the MNAP works with hundreds of foresters, environmental consultants and developers who need the program’s ecological information for conservation planning and development to minimize impact.
Much of the program’s information already existed in a notebook format with highly technical verbiage, definitely not the most user-friendly. “Some of our constituents can digest that type of information,” Cutko said, “but we recognized there was a much broader segment of the population, such as the weekend naturalist or fourth-grade teacher, who had an interest in the world around them.”
Gawler, who previously was a MNAP ecologist, did the bulk of the initial information analysis and crunched the technical data, undertaking the process of determining landscape types. Cutko, who previously was director of NatureServe’s forest program, used his field knowledge to refine the definitions of the various communities. “Dozens and dozens of people” did the actual field work of collecting data in various habitats, notating the plants and animals that live in them around the state, he said.
What has resulted is a guide that is a significant tool for the identification and conservation of special places throughout the state that meets the technical and general description needs of both audiences.
In identifying the 104 unique communities, the two ecologists used a “top-down” approach, Cutko explained, starting with four specific subgroups that are color-coded in the book: wooded uplands; wooded wetlands; open uplands; and open wetlands.
“Even a grade-schooler can figure out if they’re in a forested upland or an open wetland,” the ecologist said. “One of the first questions we ask is: Are your feet wet or dry? Are there trees there or not? … By grouping them that way, we try to make use of the book compatible even to those with much less knowledge and experience.”
Under each subgroup, readers will find a two-page description of each type, including attractive photographs, maps and helpful lists on trees, shrubs, wildflowers and wildlife, and most importantly, where on Maine’s conservation lands each habitat can be visited. Introductory material includes a diagnostic key and how each classification fits into a bigger picture for conservation; appendices include a cross-reference to other classification types and a glossary.
An interesting aspect of the guide is the inclusion of rankings by rarity. Some habitats are rare to Maine, but more common in other states, such as the oak-hickory forest found only in southern Maine but common from Massachusetts to West Virginia. Other habitats are “truly globally rare,” Cutko pointed out. These include the pitch pine-scrub oak barrens in southern Maine that require periodic burning to be maintained and the riverside seep in the St. John Valley, home of the Furbish’s lousewort, a rare and endangered snapdragon that grows nowhere else in the world.
The book was carefully designed by Cutko, Lisa St. Hilaire, MNAP information manager, and designer Cory Courtois of Waterville to be accessible and attractive. About 3,000 books have been printed through grants from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, the Maine Forest Service and the Sweet Water Trust of Boston. Initial responses, mostly from the environmental community, have been positive; an enthusiastic reader called it “one wicked nice book.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” Cutko acknowledged, “but we’re pretty confident it’s going to be useful to our constituents. What I am hopeful about are the high school kids or the amateur naturalist who want to know more about the woods and wetlands they’ve been walking through. Those are the Maine folks we also hope we reach.”
For more information about “Natural Landscapes of Maine,” go to: (Courtesy photo)