Farming Magazine - May, 2012


Open for Visitors

Mountaintop clear-cut provides views, new wildlife habitat
By Patrick White

A 14-acre clear-cut atop Mt. Agamenticus in York, Maine, has restored views that had become overgrown. Stumps and slash were left in place to prevent soil erosion, and the area will be managed as shrubland habitat to encourage wildlife diversity.
Photos courtesy of the Mt. Agamenticus Conservation Region.

Logging jobs are nothing unusual in Maine, which is the most forested state in the nation. However, a recent logging job was undertaken for a somewhat unusual reason: to restore once-grand views from the summit of a mountain.

With the goal of opening up views that had become overgrown, a 14-acre clear-cut was completed in January atop Mt. Agamenticus in York, Maine. The project was also designed to create valuable shrubland wildlife habitat, meaning that both the public and certain wildlife species would benefit from the cutting.

Mt. Agamenticus is one part of the larger Mt. Agamenticus Conservation Region, which encompasses some 10,000 contiguous acres of undeveloped land along the Maine coast. Representatives from the seven different landowners in this region (The towns of York and South Berwick, The York Water District, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Great Works Regional Land Trust, York Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy) work together as a steering committee. As a group, their mission is "to protect the region's water quality and wildlife habitat while managing sustainable recreational opportunities for the general public."

Robin Kerr, conservation coordinator for the group, says that the Mt. Agamenticus clearing project fit perfectly with those goals, particularly that of providing recreational opportunities for the public. "Mt. A is definitely a destination for folks, and it's also a starting point," she explains of the well-visited mountaintop. Visitors can park at the base and hike up to the top on trails, or they can drive up to the top on a road. Providing improved views will hopefully draw more people out to experience all that the Mt. Agamenticus Conservation Region has to offer, says Kerr.

At the summit, a larger network of trails can be accessed. Also at the summit is an old ski lodge (the mountain at one time was home to a ski area), where the Mt. Agamenticus Conservation Region offices are now housed and educational programs are offered. "There are also observation decks," she adds. Over the years, however, the surrounding forest had grown up to the point that it largely blocked the views.

"Prior to being a ski area, there had been a military base here and everything had been cleared during that time period," says Kerr. As these activities left, the forest grew up to cover most of the summit, save for the areas around the buildings and a small field that was kept mowed. So there was little left to the tremendous views that many older residents could recall. "We wanted to restore those views, while also looking at the larger picture of habitat management and the decline of shrub habitat. We saw it as an opportunity to create more diverse habitat, and because it's a place where many people come, to use it as a showpiece and educational center," she explains.

Shrubland habitat is in short supply and extremely valuable, says Kerr. It attracts a diverse array of wildlife ranging from birds (warblers, American woodcock, ruffed grouse) to turtles ("it provides that great open cover they require for nesting," she states) and snakes. "These species all need this type of habitat. Then there are also species that don't necessarily require it, but definitely will take advantage of it," Kerr adds.

About 14 acres was cleared as part of the "viewscaping" project. Creating a viable shrubland habitat takes at least 5 acres, and some people would have preferred the clearing to be even larger, says Kerr. "Twenty-five acres would have been ideal, but 14 acres is a great start," she explains. One inspiration for the Mt. Agamenticus shrubland project, says Kerr, was a similar undertaking at the Scarborough Marsh Wildlife Management Area in Cumberland County, Maine. There, 21 acres of mature forest were clear-cut in 2011 to provide habitat for a number of species, including the New England cottontail.

In many ways, shrubland habitat seems more suited to the summit than the trees that had eventually overtaken it. There were some mature trees and larger hemlocks on the site, but because of its location on the summit, the timber, for the most part, wasn't very valuable. "Most of it got chipped," says Kerr. Evidence of the tough growing environment can be seen by looking at the forested edge surrounding the cut. "The trees are in pretty rough condition," she points out.

Before: An old ski lodge sits on the summit of Mt. Agamenticus. Views surrounding the structure had become blocked as the forest had grown up over several decades.

After: The clearing has created 360-degree views, allowing visitors and hikers to see the Atlantic Ocean in one direction and far-off Mt. Washington in the other.

Being on a summit also created some tough working conditions. For starters, there was a slight delay in the logging job while waiting for the right window of weather to open up in order to ensure that logging equipment and trucks could make it up and down the road to the summit. "We wanted to be sure the ground was solid enough, but also to make sure the road wasn't too icy," says Kerr. "We were able to start briefly in November, but the weather this winter just did not cooperate." Finally, in the first week of January, a window of opportunity opened and the logging was largely completed in just this time period.

The logging was done by William Day & Son Logging of Porter, Maine. "They came up to look at things a few times before agreeing to take on the job," recalls Kerr. "There were some steep areas that were a challenge, but they were well outfitted for the job."

Because the views were a paramount consideration, the area to be logged was denoted more by elevation than by circumference. The outer boundaries were estimated and marked by foresters, but some modifications had to be made during logging. "We planned to go out about as far as the 600 to 620-foot contour line," explains Kerr. The summit sits at 692 feet, and because the ground drops away fairly quickly there wasn't a need to cut very far in terms of distance from the summit in order to produce open views. In fact, in most cases it wasn't necessary to log even as low as anticipated.

To help minimize the threat of erosion, stumps were left in place rather than removed. "The [Maine] Forest Service recommended that we keep stumps in place, so we didn't do any stump pulling," says Kerr. "We also left the branches and debris behind to help stabilize soils." While these decisions certainly helped from an erosion control standpoint, they didn't necessarily help from an aesthetic standpoint, she concedes. Some late winter/early spring visitors have seized on the appearance of the logging job as a sign that the clear-cut was destructive.

Clear-cuts and patch cuts aren't always popular with the general public. When the skidders leave, it takes an understanding of forest ecology to see how the opening will provide much improved habitat for certain wildlife species, and it takes a little experience to realize how quickly the site will green-up and how fast regeneration will occur with sunlight pouring in. What's easy for everyone to spot are the stumps and twisted piles of branches and tire marks. This is all the more true when the logging site is out in the open in a highly public area. "The people who understand forestry operations look at it and say it looks fantastic, but other people looking at it just see the rawness of it and think we butchered the summit," says Kerr. While there's a diverse array of opinions on the project, she says that the vast majority of input has been positive. She adds, though, that she can't wait for things to green up and soften the appearance of the now barren landscape.

Kerr says it will take a little longer for the shrubs to become established, and in the meantime she plans to continue to educate the public on the wildlife benefits this habitat will offer. "We're going to have some interpretive displays to explain that and put in a looped trail around the clearing," she explains. Ideally, that trail will be handicapped accessible to open up recreational opportunities for all.

Initially the plan is to let natural regeneration begin. "We're hoping that because stumps were left in place that things will start to resprout, and that with the native seedbed that's already there things will come up on their own," says Kerr. But she's also going to be on the lookout for areas that need extra help and may put down a conservation mix in places. "We may also do some native shrub planting," she adds, noting that species such as bearberry, elderberry, sweet fern, juniper, meadowsweet, alder and blueberry might be among the mix.

Obviously, the emphasis will be on lower-growing species to ensure a viable shrubland habitat and to avoid once again blocking the views, which now are breathtaking, says Kerr. "The change is dramatic. Where you used to drive up and come around the corner and just see this dense forest, now you see sky," she explains. "We've had a lot of older people say, 'Wow, it looks just how it did when I was a kid.'"

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories.