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Collaboration Achieves Climate-Critical Conservation Win

Release date: January 23, 2024

(January 22, 2024 — York, Maine) A unique parcel of marsh habitat along the upper reaches of the York River has been permanently protected through a multi-year collaboration amongst three conservation organizations and one willing landowner seeking to safeguard scarce wildlife habitat in one of the state’s most densely populated regions. The 47.5-acre parcel consists of 1.3 miles (6,800 feet) of undeveloped river frontage; abuts another 37 acres of protected land; and is part of a sweeping conservation initiative that includes habitat and marsh protection in a region of Maine that is experiencing unprecedented pressures from development, rising seas, and more frequent storms associated with climate change.

“As sea levels continue to rise, protecting land adjacent to saltmarshes will allow room for marsh migration inland while also providing a buffer for plants and animals sensitive to human disturbance.”

“Preparing for climate change is one of our key priorities and the importance of saltmarsh migration can’t be overemphasized,” says Karl Stromayer, Refuge Manager at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. “As sea levels continue to rise, protecting land adjacent to saltmarshes will allow room for marsh migration inland while also providing a buffer for plants and animals sensitive to human disturbance,” said Stromayer.

Yrmap

This map shows a 47.5-acre parcel of undeveloped frontage along the Upper York River that permanently protects critical marshland, a top priority in the face of climate change.

Currently in Maine, about 25 percent of land where marsh migration can occur is protected. “We are using the Resist-Accept-Direct (RAD) framework in response to sea level rise to inform our land protection efforts and direct saltmarsh migration inland to ensure that this key habitat type persists into the 22nd Century and beyond,” said Stromayer.

According to York Land Trust Executive Director Amelia Nadilo, the deal represents a rare conservation triumph in a portion of the state with high population density and shrinking opportunities for large-scale conservation that support healthy coastal ecosystems. York County is the second most populous county in Maine and is projected to see the greatest population growth between now and the end of 2028, according to the Maine Population Outlook 2020-2028.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to permanently protect these 47 acres of intact marsh habitat along the upper York River,” said Nadilo. “While the acreage may seem modest, actually a project of this scope is becoming exceedingly rare in York County. This achievement is due to a unique collaboration among York Land Trust, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and US Fish and Wildlife Service to conserve an ecologically significant property that will benefit the health of the river for generations to come.”

Nadilo noted that the catalyst for the project was a private landowner who approached York Land Trust to see if there was interest in purchasing the parcel for conservation. The original property included a home, which was portioned off and sold. Occasionally land trusts acquire large properties with houses on them and then sell the house while placing the associated open space in conservation.

The 47.5-acre parcel was added to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge on January 10.

Multiple Partners Come Together to Achieve Large-Scale Conservation

The newly protected parcel has long been considered a priority property for all three conservation organizations and is situated within the acquisition boundary [AP6] of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and within the Mt. Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative Focus Area, an alliance of conservation organizations working to protect the region’s biodiversity and recreation value.  It is also within one of Maine’s Focus Areas of Ecological Significance, areas containing unusually rich concentrations of at-risk species and habitats.
With this acquisition, the total conserved land in the upper reaches of the York River is almost 400 acres, including critical habitat for endangered and threatened species.

“Maine’s North Woods conjure images of unbroken forests and abundant wildlife, but in fact southern Maine hosts the state’s highest species and ecosystem diversity,”

In December 2022, after a fourteen-year effort, The York River was designated by U.S. Congress as a Partnership Wild and Scenic River, making it one of only 18 rivers in the U.S. to hold this special designation.

“Maine’s North Woods conjure images of unbroken forests and abundant wildlife, but in fact southern Maine hosts the state’s highest species and ecosystem diversity,” says Phillip deMaynadier, Wildlife Diversity Section Supervisor for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. “This pattern of biogeography presents a conservation challenge for biodiversity since southern Maine is also where we find the highest human population densities, the fastest rates of development, and the lowest proportion of protected land.”

In addition to providing critical wildlife habitat, saltmarshes are also important resources in the nation’s response to climate change because they absorb carbon, break up wave energy, and dissipate storm surges.

Protecting the Saltmarsh Sparrow and Other Critical Species
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(Left to right) Doreen MacGillis, Land Protection Specialist at York Land Trust; Karl Stromayer Refuge Manager, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge; Keith Fletcher MCHT Southern Maine Project Manager; and Amelia Nadilo, Executive Director York Land Trust

Conservation organizations have long identified the ecological significance of the York River, which offers rare habitat for shorebirds, wading birds, waterfowl, nearly 30 species of fish, shellfish, and other marine life. But the watershed has gained prominence because it is also home to the saltmarsh sparrow, a medium-sized bird with rust-colored wings, orange face, and gray plumage that lives only in the tidal saltmarshes of the East Coast of the United States. The small songbird’s population is rapidly declining, according to University of Maine ornithology professor Brian Olsen, and could go extinct as soon as 2035. The bird is currently listed as endangered in Maine and is under review for federal protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

The saltmarsh sparrow breeds, nests, and raises its young in marshes from Kittery to Thomaston, says Olsen, seeking the highest-elevation portions of saltmarshes. While the birds are adapted to typical floods during monthly lunar tides and storms, they are not adapted to prolonged flooding and rising seas.

“We know that the saltmarsh sparrow is under threat from sea level rise associated with climate change,” said Nadilo. “Because these birds nest exclusively in tidal marshes, they need upland habitat during storm events and floods, which is exactly what this new conservation win provides.”

Saltmarshes are one of southern Maine’s most biologically productive ecosystems. These fragile wetlands provide habitat for an exceptional diversity of coastal biota, especially birds, fishes, invertebrates, and plants. According to deMaynadier, some of these species – such as the margined tiger beetle, the migratory monarch, and the saltmarsh sparrow – are of conservation concern due to low population numbers and specialized habitat requirements.

“…large storms like the ones we’ve seen so far in 2024, are becoming more commonplace on the Maine coast and elsewhere as a result of climate change.”

Marsh Protection Key to Climate Response

According to MCHT Senior Conservation and Community Planner Jeremy Gabrielson, MCHT has identified 67 marshes along the Maine coast that need protection. The organization is currently focused on 27 where there is relatively intact habitat, connectivity to nearby ecological systems, and where marsh migration is feasible.

Gabrielson says that large storms like the ones we’ve seen so far in 2024, are becoming more commonplace on the Maine coast and elsewhere as a result of climate change. Conserving marshes, which act as a buffer to flooding and storm surges, will help protect human and ecological communities.

“Partnerships such as the one formed by York Land Trust, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and US Fish and Wildlife Service not only represent a big climate win, but they can also provide a helpful model to accomplish much needed conservation,” notes Nadilo.