Where the Wild Places Are

What are the lessons for conservation at Bates-Morse Mountain?

by Barbara St. John Vickery ’83

Maine’s rugged landforms, ancient rocks, and vast green forests suggest permanence. But in fact, this land and the life it supports are in constant flux. Take Morse Mountain, the roughly 700-acre tract centered on a spine of granitic rock, facing the open Atlantic.

The long shore currents of the counter-clockwise gyre of the Gulf of Maine continually bring in tons of fine sand long ago deposited at the mouth of the Kennebec River to the east to build and replenish the long beach. This beach forms a barrier across the two valleys that flank the mountain, allowing them to fill in over recent millennia as salt marshes. Through these marshes meander the tidal inlets of the Morse and Sprague rivers.

We expect cyclic changes in our environment: daily tidal cycles, phases of the moon, the seasons.

Professor Emeritus of Biology and poet Robert Chute, the BMMCA’s first director, reviews his verse

When we get to know one natural place we also notice annual fluctuations, such as the mouth of the Morse River whiplashing across the beach, changing location from year to year. The dunes are cut back and advance again; a big storm even kills the pitch pines in the back dunes with salt spray.

Stretching our minds, we can imagine and believe in unwitnessed changes. Mountains being built and eroding away over millions of years. Species evolving, diverging, becoming many or extinct. The great auks that only centuries ago swam these shores, the wooly mammoths that lumbered over a coastal plain beside the continental ice, or the plesiosaurs of the carboniferous swamps.

Less than 10,000 years ago, Morse Mountain looked like tundra barren, scoured clean by mile-deep ice, ready for new life. Probably caribou grazed here. In the last three centuries, people brought wholesale changes to the land. Farmers in southern Maine cleared the forests Longfellow’s forest primeval, “the murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss.” By the 19th century meadowlarks flourished, hermit thrushes did not. First wolves, then cougars, wolverines, and finally moose were driven from southern Maine. But, most of the farmers gave up trying to get anything out of our comparatively infertile, stony soils long ago, especially after one of those annual aberrations 1816, the year of no summer, when there was frost or snow in every month of the year and moved west, leaving the resilient forests to regrow around the stone walls.

Today, Maine is more forested than it has been in the last 200 years. Moose and thrush have returned. Birds dependent on early successional habitats (that is, ones in transition) are the ones in steady decline. But as new houses and roads perforate the forest canopy to the point of fine lace all over southern Maine and around Morse Mountain, what creatures will survive this subtle but permanent and pervasive change? If extinction is natural and change is ubiquitous, what are the lessons for conservation? Should we intervene in the fate of the piping plover, always scarce on Maine beaches? Or focus on the still abundant flocks of sandpipers? What should be our response and responsibility to changes we humans add to natural ones?

There is, of course, no eternal, ideal state of nature to which we should return. We cannot hold any natural system static. Yet we learn that too much of the wrong kinds of change can make natural systems fall apart altogether or become dysfunctional. But it is not always easy to see where, why, or if we should intervene even with the goal of restoring a natural process. To return Sprague and Morse marshes to more natural functions, with pools and pannes for mummichogs and shorebirds, should we focus on the drainage ditches created in the marsh by 18th-century farmers making salt hay? Or on the great wide channel dug with machines just 40 years ago? Or on the roads and causeways still blocking tidal flow? Or should we just wait?

Even if we had clarity about the values the “goodness” or “badness” of various changes it is difficult to distinguish anthropogenic influences from natural ones. It is hard to know, when we compromise natural forces for human needs or desires, where the thresholds are and how far before we step over them.

We do need wild, natural places not necessarily places never touched by humans, but places where natural processes operate mostly unfettered by the ongoing influence of humans. Wild places help us sort out the causes and direction of natural change and the differences in influence of human action. These places serve not as controls, in a strict scientific sense, but as benchmarks. The Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area is such a place of study, of long-term monitoring, a place to learn.

We need wild natural places like Bates-Morse Mountain because we are inveterate tinkerers. A natural place is where we can “save all the parts,” even as we elsewhere compound the effects of human interventions. Conservation is fundamentally and appropriately a cautious response to the fact of human dominance of and radical changes to landscapes. Conservation areas provide places for the easily overlooked or literally trampled underfoot species, and for creatures that need larger spaces and less human company.

Bates expected these purposes when it took responsibility for the Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area 25 years ago. But another use simple human enjoyment soon confounded the College. What started as a few cars and a simple parking lot soon became an overwhelming demand on Bates-Morse Mountain. At first, Bates acknowledged outside visitors with reluctance while thinking, “Couldn’t we have this just for us and other scientists?”

It would have been so much easier to close the gates. As annual visitor days grew to more than 10,000, conflicts arose between research and recreation, between human feet and dune plants and lichens, between plovers and dogs, and between Bates and its neighbors. Bates learned a new role: that of conservation land manager with neighboring landowners, with the town, with the local school and with the public. Bates moved to a more sustainable management approach, one that now focuses on maintaining the resilience of the place’s natural systems by managing the people who use it and working with the human communities of which it is part.

Why is this worthwhile? Because the third vital reason for saving and caring for wild natural places is to fill another kind of human need: to be reminded of our place on Earth as only one of many creatures. We are irrelevant and dispensable to most natural systems and powerless against most natural forces. In short, we need to relearn humility and patience, wonder and delight and hope.

Managing this place for all three purposes conservation, research, and human use and enjoyment is harder. But learning to manage for all three at once also makes this a much richer and more valuable learning laboratory for the Bates community.