Maine Coast Heritage Trust Makes Million Dollar Investment to Propel Climate Change Work Along Maine Coast

Release date: November 4, 2022

An anonymous donor is helping to fund the protection of seven saltwater marshes from York County to Washington County as part of a coastwide conservation and restoration initiative.

(Topsham, ME — November 3, 2022) – Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), a statewide land conservation organization, announced today that it has received $950,000 from an anonymous donor to help fund the acquisition of ecologically significant marshes along the Maine coast. One of the largest private gifts in Maine history to support saltmarsh conservation, the funds will help conserve seven coastal marshes from the York River Marsh in southernmost Maine to Turner Stream Marsh in Cutler.

The funds augment a previous gift of $750,000 from the same donor which supported the recent acquisition and protection of the Cousins River Marsh, a three-way collaborative effort between MCHT, Royal River Conservation Trust, and Freeport Conservation Trust.

The gift will make possible the acquisition and protection of +948 acres of saltmarsh and adjacent uplands on the coast of Maine; tidal marshes containing rare plant species; wetlands and habitat of significance for inland waterfowl and wading birds; lands near Acadia National Park that will be used for outdoor education; and restoration of marshes that were severely damaged by the intensive 19th-century agricultural practice of building embankments to increase the harvest of salt hay.

In all, the anonymous gift will fund two projects in York County, one in Kennebec County, one in Hancock County, and three in Washington County. Acquisition and protection of all seven saltmarshes is expected to be completed by early 2023.

Marshes For Tomorrow – A Coastwide Effort

MCHT recently received word of the anonymous $950,000 gift which was earmarked for the nonprofit’s Marshes for Tomorrow Initiative, launched in 2016 as a coastwide comprehensive marshland protection effort that includes conservation, restoration, stewardship, and cross-organizational communication between research groups, local land trusts, and conservation partners.

“The protection of saltmarshes and their adjacent uplands is critical to Maine’s coastal resilience as we adapt to climate change, rising sea levels, and a new wave of powerful storm surges,” said MCHT Senior Conservation and Community Planner Jeremy Gabrielson. “As sea levels rise, MCHT is focused on protecting low-lying coastal lands adjacent to marshes because these vulnerable areas will experience the most severe flooding and they also have the greatest potential to support new saltmarsh habitat, a process known as marsh migration.”

Gabrielson continued: “With this gift, we now have a window of opportunity to protect threatened marshes and the land above them, providing an absorption zone for the incoming seas,” he said. “Funding of this kind is imperative because it allows us to streamline and hasten our efforts across multiple key projects and leverage other funding sources to get the work done.”

Gabrielson noted that MCHT has another 27 active marsh migration projects in its pipeline, which is focused on a total of 67 marshes along the Maine coast that have been identified as needing protection. Priority is being given to places with relatively intact habitat adjacent to existing marshes where land protection can be an effective strategy to protect plants and wildlife habitat, promote connectivity to nearby ecological systems, and support marsh migration. At the same time, MCHT is working with partners on other strategies to protect the safety of the built infrastructure and the resilience of valuable coastal industries vulnerable to sea level rise.

Blue Carbon Optimization Strategy

Kate Stookey, president and CEO of MCHT, noted the significance and timing of the gift as concerns escalate over climate change, rising seas, and the impact of storms on communities along the Maine coast.

“Unlike other states with highly built shorelines, Maine is in the fortunate position of still having marshlands to protect,” said Stookey, “but with the intensity of climate change and the relentless development pressure on parts of our coastline, our sense of urgency is amplified.”  In addition to improving the climate resiliency of coastal towns, Stookey notes that the protection of saltmarshes is a vital ‘blue carbon’ strategy, because healthy coastal wetlands provide a natural way to lock carbon in and prevent it from being released into the atmosphere.

“MCHT is able to leverage its coastwide focus and extensive network of partnerships to advance blue carbon strategies associated with marshland along the entire coast of Maine,” she added. “Through coastwide planning, analysis, and collaboration, we can identify where land protection is most likely to safeguard existing marshes and provide them room to migrate as sea level rises.”

Key to implementing blue carbon strategies is a greater understanding of the carbon storage capacity in Maine’s tidal marshes. A large body of research being undertaken by the Coastal Carbon Research Network has identified saltwater marshes and sea grasses among the top three “blue carbon” champions globally and noted that Maine marshes are roughly 10 times more effective at storing carbon on a per-acre basis than Maine forestland. According to an article published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coastal habitat conservation is an imperative blue carbon strategy because when marshlands are damaged or destroyed, an enormous amount of carbon is emitted back into the atmosphere.

“When we protect the carbon in coastal systems, we protect healthy coastal environments that provide many other benefits to people, such as recreational opportunities, storm protection, and nursery habitat for commercial and recreational fisheries,” the article stated.

The Maine Climate Council Coastal and Marine Working Group’s “Blue Carbon Optimization Strategy” reports that when blue carbon ecosystems are degraded, flooded with freshwater, or drained, they can become sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, including methane.

Marsh and Carbon Studies Begin in Yarmouth and Hancock

To increase our understanding of blue carbon systems in Maine, MCHT is working with researchers, including Dr. Jon Woodruff, University of Massachusetts Amherst Co-Director, Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, and Dr. Beverly Johnson, Bates College Professor of Earth and Climate Sciences.

Dr. Johnson and her students have been studying carbon cycling at the Cousins River Fields and Marsh Project in Yarmouth and Old Pond Preserve in Hancock. Dr. Woodruff and his students have been working at the same locations to better understand the hydrology and sedimentation rates of marshes.

With funding from the Maine Natural Resource Conservation Program, a marsh restoration project has begun at Old Pond Preserve which aims to address impairment associated with historical agricultural alterations, such as dikes, berms, and ditches, that have changed the way water flows through the marsh, causing ponding on the marsh surface and loss of marsh vegetation.

“MCHT is using real-time research to inform restoration practices that have the potential to enhance carbon storage and restore vitality to Maine’s threatened saltmarshes,” noted Stookey. “In a quickly changing world, protecting these important marshland properties is a critically important first step.”

About Maine Coast Heritage Trust

MCHT is a dynamic, multifaceted organization with initiatives ranging from high impact ecological work focused on reconnecting waterways and improving coastal resiliency to climate change to preserving coastal access for communities. A leader in Maine’s nationally renowned land conservation efforts since 1970, MCHT maintains a growing network of almost 150 coastal and island preserves free and open to everyone and leads the 80-member Maine Land Trust Network to ensure that local land conservation provides benefits to all Maine communities. Get involved at www.mcht.org.