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Acadia’s Natural Areas: How Special Are They?

From the fall 1993 Friends of Acadia Journal
by Tammis Coffin

Scientists have long been drawn to the natural wonders of Acadia. They’ve made detailed records of Mount Desert Island’s special features for well over a century. However, until just recently, few scientists could tell you just how special Acadia’s natural areas really are.

When Maine’s Critical Program began extensive inventories and survey of rare and unique habitats, species, and plant communities throughout Maine, the program provided a regional perspective and comparative evaluation of similar sites across the state that had never existed before. These studies tell us that in some instances, Acadia’s treasures are unique in Maine and unique in the world.

Take for example the bogs in Acadia. It was a Critical Areas Study of Maine’s peatlands in 1980 that determined one of Acadia’s bogs to be the home of a rare orchid, while also being one of North America’s best examples of a coastal raised peatland, holding clues to past and future global climate change.

Other critical Areas studies found that a fragile luminous moss (Schistostega pennati) found along Acadia’s rocky shores was known at only two other locations in Maine.

Another study found that Acadia’ Sand Beach can be considered the best example of a cold water calcareous beach in the U.S., outside of Alaska. Composed of finely crushed shells, the so-called Sand Beach maintains itself through highly productive natural supplies of barnacle, sea urchin, and blue mussel shells.

A survey of arctic-alpine plant communities along Maine’s coast reveals Acadia’s headlands and islands to be the southern limit for many flowering boreal species. At one of the park’s offshore islands, seven rare and unusual boreal plants occur together—beachhead iris, pearlwort, blinks, marsh felwort, birds-eye primrose, roseroot stonecrop, and oysterleaf.

By telling us how special many of Acadia’ natural resources are within a broader context, Maine’s past Natural Areas Program efforts have given Acadia’s managers valuable insight as to the value of the natural resources that the park is trying to protect.

Critical Areas Program Inventories have often led to further research by the National Park Service to better understand and monitor its unique geological and botanical features. The regional perspective provided by state-wide surveys has proven beneficial in justifying special protection for special natural features. Some of Acadia’s plant communities found by the Critical Areas Program to illustrate a specialized climatic and ecological region (such as the coastal raised peatland) have been chosen by the National Park Service as site for long-term ecological monitoring.

Far more remains to be discovered about Maine’s special natural features. As population pressures increase, the advance identification of natural areas will become increasingly important. We at Friends of Acadia wish the best for Maine’s new Natural Areas Program. We hope that it will obtain the necessary donated funds to continue its valuable work, for Acadia and for all of Maine.