YARMOUTH, Maine – An anonymous donation has helped take nearly 1,000 acres of Maine wetlands off the market, in an effort to better prepare coastal wetlands for continued climate change.
The Maine Coast Heritage Trust announced that it recently received the donation of nearly $1 million, helping the trust purchase seven salt marshes from the York River Marsh in York to the Turner Stream Marsh in Cutler.
Wetlands play an important role as diverse habitats for aquatic plants and animals, and protect uplands from erosion, explained the trust’s Jeremy Gabrielson. Saltwater marshes are expected to migrate to higher ground as sea levels rise. Gabrielson hopes that conserving the land will allow it to migrate freely during the next century of change.
“The idea with this project is that we’re looking to protect places that have current marsh, like this marsh we’re in now, but [also]where there is an opportunity for marshes in the future,” he said, looking across Cousins River Marsh in Yarmouth. “Given sea level rise projections, we expect that many of the marshes we have today will not they will be here, at least not in the same form 100 years from now.”
On a January afternoon, Susan Adamowicz walked the Atlantic Way public trail, which winds through a massive marsh in Wells. She is the demonstration and land management biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
As on the Cousins River, European settlers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries shaped levees in the Wells Swamp to direct water flow and grow salt hay, Adamowicz explained. Now, human-influenced climate change is affecting what Maine’s wetlands will look like for centuries to come.
He came to a clearing and pointed to rows of rotting trees lining the edge of the swamp.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s causing the marshes to migrate,” he said. “With sea level rise, you get salt water intrusion, and trees are freshwater creatures, so they don’t like salt in their roots. Also, what can happen is that as that the seas are rising, they are pushing the fresh water above them higher, so you can have a higher water table in areas where salt water is coming in from below.
In addition to its importance as an ecosystem for plants and animals, Wells Marsh, like many others like it, plays an important role in protecting nearby communities from storms and erosion. Salt marshes are adapted to capture daily tidal flows, holding water briefly and releasing it gradually, Adamowicz explained.
“If it wasn’t here, we’d still have a reservoir with open water that would cause erosion, with storms it would fill up very quickly,” he said, gesturing toward nearby homes. “There would be nothing to help hold back the sea.”
Gabrielson and the trust hope that by buying these strips of land, they can slow down residential development and allow Maine’s marshland space to adjust and remain an unsung hero in a coastal ecosystem.