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spacer image Maine's Changing Forests
Maine's Changing Forests
The forests in Maine are incredibly varied, ranging from coastal pitch pine to northern hardwoods (maple, beech and birch), to majestic white pine, to the sub-boreal spruce-fir stands. Maine's forests are continually changing as trees pass through their life cycles, which differ from species to species. Often, though the changes are hard to see from year to year.

One overriding factor is that with Maine's moist climate and good soils, trees grow naturally in almost all parts of the state. Without human intervention, most of the state would remain forested. A major change over the past three centuries, directly tied to humans, is the amount of forest. Maine has more forest today than it did in the mid-1800s - in some parts of the state, much more.

Human use of the forest and clearing for other land uses, especially since European settlement, has had a major influence on the amount of forest cover and the types of forests found in many parts of the state. From the earliest ship-building, agriculture, timber harvesting for a developing forest products industry, human-caused fires, the introduction of exotic species, air quality and climate - these influences can be seen in individual woodlots as well as in the broader landscape. Each part of Maine's forest has its own unique history…

Harvard Diorama Maine Forest 1700 layout image
Before european settlement - Maine's forest is nearly unbroken and wild, with a wide range of tree species, depending on soil and terrain. Both very large trees and carpets of tree seedlings, standing dead snags and fallen logs abound. Except for some clearing by humans and openings created by rare natural events like windstorms or insect outbreaks, the forest changes slowly with succeeding generations of trees.
First clearing by settlers - Individual farmers clear patches of forest for pasture and cropland. The forests are in the way, and are cut, stumps pulled and piled as brush fences to keep in livestock, burned, or consumed for early dwellings. In a few short years, however, the surrounding forests are increasingly a critical source of building material, fuel, livestock feed, and in some cases, a cash crop for settler communities.
layout image Harvard Diorama Maine Forest 1740
Harvard Diorama Maine Forest 1830 layout image
Forests in the fields - Villages and small towns depend on agriculture to sustain them. With other industries small and scattered, up to 80% of the land in some areas is devoted to growing crops to feed humans or livestock. Wool production expands dramatically (leaving stone walls crisscrossing Maine as reminders that persist today). Remaining forests are heavily used for firewood and lumber. In the northwoods, even some of the smallest streams are dammed and then released to float logs to downstream mills.
View of Appleton, Maine, ca. 1850
A view of a typical midcoast farming community reveals the results of nearly 100 years of post-settlement history. A widely scattered population relies on agriculture covering up to 80% of the area. Most of these fields today are clothed in forests… Around this time, forest use in northern Maine, where agriculture is limited, increases sharply from 1850-1880 with the advent of the use of wood pulp in paper-making. Spruce and fir are the preferred species.
layout image Appleton, Maine 1850
Harvard Diorama Maine Forest 1870 layout image
Farming declines - Beginning around the time of the Civil War, several factors - the migration of Maine veterans, the rise of industry, the opening of better land in the American Midwest, and the Great Depression, cause many Maine farms to be abandoned. Young forests quickly take over, though the types of trees are not always the same as what existed before a century or more of farming.
First cut in second-growth forest - Forests remain a source for building materials, tool handles, boxes, crates, barrels, lobster traps. Forest harvesting in woods that grew up since the Civil War targets the trees most suitable for different uses. White pine forests that grew in as pure stands on old pastures - "old-field pine" - are an important part of the economy in the "White Pine State". Spruce and fir remain vital to Maine's paper industry.
layout image Harvard Diorama Maine Forest 1910
Washburn-Norlands Living History Center layout image
Forests once again cover nearly 90% of Maine's landscape. The variety of species mixtures, tree sizes, and quantities of dead wood - an important wildlife habitat element - still depends in large part on the history of human use over the past 200-300 years. Today's activities will similarly determine the forests of the future…
Harvard Diorama images courtesy of Fisher Museum, Harvard Forest, Petersham, Massachusetts.

1850 Appleton, Maine photo from a series taken by J. Henry Allen of Thomaston and F.W. Cunningham of South Liberty. Gifted to the Mildred Stevens Williams Memorial Library of Appleton by Mrs. Leon Morang Faxon of Liberty.

2003 Livermore, Maine photo courtesy of Washburn-Norlands Living History Center, Livermore, Maine.


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Maine Forest Service
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Augusta, Maine 04333-0022

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