Places We Protect

Boundary Mountains Preserve


A rainbow covers a daytime moon as it arcs into a forested mountain ridge after a storm.
Boundary Mountains Preserve A rainbow arches over Caribou Mountain in the 9,608-acre newly-conserved forest. © Mark Berry/TNC

A remote mountain forest provides important habitat for wildlife.

a woman sits among stones on a mountain talus slope.
Taking a Break Kira Bennett Hamilton rests on a talus slope during the bioblitz at Boundary Mountains Preserve. © Nancy Sferra/TNC

Biodiversity at the Boundary

By Kira Bennett Hamilton

Hobblebush (Vibernum lantanoides) was the first new plant I learned to identify in the Boundary Mountains Preserve. The aptly named shrub grows in vast, curving thickets throughout the woods in the Northeast and Canada. Hobblebush branches easily interlock and occasionally curve down to the ground and re-root in moist soil, forming hoops and tangles ideally suited to trip up hikers like us.

Though the late August day was hot and humid, some of the hobblebush foliage was already darkening to mottled autumnal purple as my colleagues and I pushed our way up the steep slope of Merrill Mountain in western Maine. At 3,333 feet in elevation, Merrill Mountain does attract some peak baggers, but it’s not an easy day trip—it requires a long drive on private logging roads to access, and there’s no trail to the top.

But that remoteness was exactly what appealed to us. My colleagues at The Nature Conservancy in Maine and I were on a “bioblitz” expedition to our newest preserve to conduct an ecological inventory of all the plants, animals, mosses, mushrooms, butterflies and fish we could identify. Nancy Sferra, our director of land management, would use that species list to develop a management plan for the preserve, as certified land trusts must do for all the land we care for. Our ecological inventory would also serve as a baseline for the preserve, so over the years and decades to come we can observe how climate change, pollution, invasive insects and other influences shape the natural communities in the Boundary Mountains.

Helping the Experts

Sferra, our senior conservation scientist, Joshua Royte and our stewardship field assistant, Nate Reed, have many decades of naturalist experience between them, and they chatted excitedly about the ferns and mosses underfoot as we walked. As a fundraising staffer with little field experience, I was tagging along on the bioblitz to take photos, write stories and maybe help carry equipment. Sferra had suggested early in the trip that I could help out with taking notes, but even that proved a challenge—she and Royte bandied around common and Latin names of species so quickly that my unfamiliar ears could barely keep up.

“Nice ostrich fern over there.”

“Check out that Euphrasia americana.”

“Have you documented gem-studded puffballs yet?”

“Wow, I think that’s the biggest balsam poplar I’ve ever seen.”

We picked our way gingerly over a steep talus slope covered in loose rocks, looking for bundled leaves, fur or scat that might indicate the presence of a rare rock vole nest or bat hiding place. Seeing none, we paused to have lunch and admire the sweeping view over the mountainous, forested landscape. Reed checked our GPS to confirm our location and pointed out peaks: Merrill Mountain, 3,648-foot Caribou Mountain, and a dozen other peaks over 2,700 feet high are all located on the preserve’s 9,608 acres.

Quote: Nancy Sferra

Connected, diverse ecosystems are more resilient to climate change.

Director of Land Management

Boundary Mountains Preserve is an important link in a large swath of contiguous forest that stretches over more than 260,000 acres from the White Mountains in New Hampshire through the western Maine mountains to the Quebec borderlands, and beyond. Its cold, clear headwater streams feed into the Kennebec River via the Moose River and Moosehead Lake. These lands were long stewarded by the Abenaki people and retain cultural significance for them still. Today, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Indian Nation care for nearby Trust lands.

“This preserve is valuable because it’s connected to other large tracts of forest,” Nancy Sferra explains. “Connected, diverse ecosystems are more resilient to climate change.”

Connected and Resilient

The preserve is part of a larger strategy by TNC to mitigate the causes of climate change through conservation and make our landscape more adaptable to whatever the future holds. Wildlife species in North America are shifting their ranges an average of 11 miles north and 36 feet upward in elevation each decade. Many species are approaching, or have already reached, the limit of where they can go to find hospitable climates. Research by TNC and partners also shows that nearly 60% of U.S. lands and waters are fragmented by human development, preventing species from moving naturally to find new and more hospitable habitat.

Maintaining the carbon stored in mature forest and providing the opportunity for trees to continue pulling carbon from the atmosphere mitigates climate change.

TNC is managing the forest as an ecological reserve, where the forest is shaped by natural processes such as wind, ice and other weather events. Beyond providing valuable wildlife habitat, ecological reserves are important to scientists studying the growth of forests and how they respond, in the absence of timber harvesting, to challenges such as climate change, forest pests, diseases and airborne pollution. This bioblitz is one way to add to that understanding.

After finishing lunch among the rocks, it was time to head uphill again—and back into the hobblebush—on the way to the summit of Merrill Mountain.

“It’s important we protect the range of natural areas in all their expressions around Maine,” Royte explained, “from the streams and wetlands in the valleys to the tops of mountains, and the many habitats in between.”

On one rocky hillside, Royte and Sferra dropped their packs in excitement to confer over a field guide.

“Look over there, near the intermediate ferns—the one with the bronze scales, that’s Braun’s holly fern.”

“That’s really uncommon in Maine, and critically imperiled in other states. When you do see it, it’s often with some Maine-listed rare plants”

“Keep your eyes out for other rare plants nearby.”

By the end of the bioblitz, the team had identified over 150 plant species, found scat and tracks from moose, deer and bear, heard a scattering of late-summer birdsong and documented a robust population of native brook trout in Number One Brook. But there’s always more to do.

“In reality, we’re really just scratching the surface here,” says Sferra. “Given our small team and limited time, there are still a lot of holes in our knowledge.”

Before You Visit

There are no trails or facilities at the preserve. Camping and pets are not permitted to protect the natural processes and habits of wildlife. The preserve can be accessed via private seasonal logging roads, however safe travel requires high vehicle clearance, good tires (including spares) and the ability to repair your vehicle without help. There is no cell phone coverage and no facilities.